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Audit: 'Inconsistent, disorganized' DHS programs hurt child welfare

Oregon's Department of Human Services, which oversees the child welfare program, has been 'slow, indecisive and inadequate' in addressing chronic and well-documented problems in the state's foster care system.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP/EO MEDIA GROUPSALEM — Oregon's Child Welfare program is "inconsistent, disorganized and high risk for the children it serves," state auditors reported Wednesday.

Oregon's Department of Human Services, which oversees the child welfare program, has been "slow, indecisive and inadequate" in addressing chronic and well-documented problems in the state's foster care system, according to an audit released by the Oregon secretary of state's office Jan. 31.

Since 2011, more than 11,000 Oregon kids have been placed into foster care annually, with an average of about 7,600 kids in foster care on any given day. Foster care is part of the department's child welfare program, and often serves children who are victims of abuse and neglect. Auditors focused on foster care in the 85-page report, but also found higher-level management and staffing problems at DHS child welfare.

Here are the audit's key findings:

• Management has failed to implement prior reform recommendations.

• Foster parents don't get enough training or support.

• DHS has failed to adequately recruit and retain foster parents.

• There aren't enough group homes or treatment facilities to meet needs for kids taken out of their family homes.

• Burnout and turnover are high among child welfare workers.

All of these problems pose a risk to kids' safety, auditors say.

The report also makes a raft of recommendations that auditors say could improve management, understaffing and the lack of suitable foster parents. In a response, DHS Director Fariborz Pakseresht said he agreed with all 24 recommendations. Pakseresht, the former director of the Oregon Youth Authority, has been at the helm of the agency since September.

In a statement, Pakseresht said the agency had made "significant progress in the last six to nine months since the audit research took place."

"The report highlights the impact of chronic understaffing, one of our agency's greatest challenges, which has led to high turnover and other problems in the agency," he said. "It also emphasizes the need to improve management practices and change our agency culture to one of empowerment to do our best for our children and our communities.

"When I started in my role as DHS director in September, the governor made it clear to me that she expects every child in foster care to be safe. As part of that, she has directed us to focus on recruiting and retaining foster parents and case workers, and to create a better culture of support for them. She expects results and outcomes and we will be reporting to her on those monthly.

"We are tackling the root cause of these issues, not just the symptoms. Data is a key part of our efforts, both leveraging existing data to highlight areas of improvement, and arming our caseworkers with the ability to interpret it. We are improving our systems and the management of those systems."

It's not the first time that the state has identified chronic problems in the DHS child welfare program. In 2015, in the wake of a scandal at Portland foster care provider Give Us This Day, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown solicited an independent review of child welfare that was published the next year.

Management at DHS hasn't implemented those recommendations, which said the agency needed to fix "foundational issues" as well as "operational problems," auditors say.

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