An audit released by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office on Wednesday acknowledged the entrenched challenges facing the state’s child welfare system and suggested a different approach: rather than placing children in state custody, use state resources to help families remain intact.
“Keeping children out of foster care can prevent life-long harm, provided effective services can stabilize their families,” the latest audit reads.
The audit focused on how child welfare could more effectively use resources to provide services and support to families in order to keep them together. The audit is illustrative of a shift in thinking in child welfare circles. For decades, the prevailing belief was removing children from their homes was the most productive way to improve their lives. But now, many people point to the lifelong trauma inflicted on children who are taken from their families.
The audit noted that deciding whether to remove children from their homes or leaving them is a difficult decision and either scenario could present certain risks. But it pointed out that a 2010 study found children placed in out-of-home care had higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than children who received in-home services.
Plus, children placed in the foster care system are also often removed from any sense of community they may have, such as school, friends or faith groups. Those who are removed are often bounced around to various places.
Currently, Oregon’s child welfare system removes children at a higher rate than the national average, according to the audit, which adds to an already high caseload for caseworkers.
The state is already in the midst of transitioning to a system where they try to offer more services to parents — such as substance abuse or mental health counseling — under Congress’ “Family First” law, which offers financial support to states to help them keep children out of foster care.
Rebecca Jones Gaston, director of the Oregon Child Welfare Program, said her office is working toward transforming the state's child welfare system.
"With contributions from partners, families and youth, our goal is to achieve true transformation built on core values and a belief that children do best growing up in a family," Jones Gaston said in a statement. "Our vision is for all children to experience safe, stable, healthy lives and grow up in the care of a nurturing family and community.”
Jones Gaston said the state is dedicated to ensuring that foster care placements - when needed - are short term, culturally appropriate and children will be placed with members of their existing community or family.
The Office of Child Welfare has a $1.35 billion budget and about 3,200 employees. The audit notes that keeping families together could reduce the burden on the entire foster care system.
As of June of this year, there were 6,692 children in foster care.
Here are some of the recommendations the audit proposes to achieve those goals.
- Children who come in contact with the child welfare system often touch several other state agencies and jurisdictions. The audit suggests creating more ways to ensure collaboration between state agencies and community partners to ensure efficient and comprehensive care.
- Rely on data to help evaluate which services are most useful for families and cost effective for the state and to help account for racial bias.
- Reduce caseworker workload. This could be done through reducing time spent on data entry or administrative activities.
- Do a better job of delivering support to rural and other underserved areas.
- When things go wrong and a child dies, do a better job evaluating whether services offered to the child and family were effective or available.
- Provide reports to state leadership and policymakers.