A scathing audit of Oregon’s Child Welfare system released more than a year ago created a disheartening picture of a system where the lives and wellbeing of the state’s most vulnerable children were threatened by chronic mismanagement.

Many of the same problems exist today, according to a recent follow-up audit released Wednesday by the Oregon secretary of state’s office.

Caseworkers and other staff remain overburdened, the audit reads, while turnover remains high, both of which could jeopardize children’s safety.

The state still lacks enough appropriate placements for foster care children, resulting in many of them being sent to facilities out-of-state or being placed in repurposed jails. And there is a lack of critical data — such as the rate of foster parent turnover and the ability to accurately track and monitor caseloads. In addition, the central abuse reporting hotline experiences significant problems, including dropped calls and long wait times.

Meanwhile, Child Welfare leaders have failed to clearly communicate staffing and budgeting needs to the state Legislature.

The agency has made some improvements and many others are in progress, the audit notes. The number of children being housed in hotels is less than a year ago. The agency has worked toward improving the Department of Human Services’ internal workplace culture and officials have added training and support services for staff.

“Substantial work remains, however, as expected given the breadth of our recommendations and the complexity of the child welfare system,” the audit reads. “Remaining issues include a shortfall of foster homes and in-state residential treatment beds, low worker adherence to child safety protocols, transition issues with the agency’s new centralized hotline, the need for more effective statewide efforts to retain and recruit foster parents and, perhaps most important, high caseworker turnover and workload.” 

Additional findings from the audit include:

  • The agency has taken steps to improve safety for children. However, the audit finds, without more money those efforts could be undermined. Plus, there have been problems transitioning to a centralized hotline: 70% of the screeners are inexperienced and 42% of the calls were dropped in the first half of April.
  • The agency hired six new managers to lead cultural transformation work within the Child Welfare department, supervisors now meet with newer staff more frequently and the agency provides monthly status reports to the governor’s office to improve transparency.
  • The agency requested 375 more Child Welfare staff, including 199 caseworkers,  however that relied on an outdated model and is still low. Child Welfare needs an estimated 570 additional caseworkers and 800 support workers to meet its staffing needs, according to the audit. But DHS has not alerted the Legislature to its full budgeting needs. “While it may not be feasible or practical to expect such extensive funding over the short term, it is important that the Legislature have a full and complete understanding of the agency’s staffing needs, from both transparency and long-term planning perspectives,” the audit states.
  • The agency has made progress toward reducing caseloads by using data to reduce the workload. The agency has also provided more support to struggling families to shorten the time their children are in foster care.
  • The state continues to struggle to recruit foster care parents and is in need of 150 more residential treatment beds. The state relies heavily on a contractor for foster care parent retention and recruitment, but this contractor does not cover the entire state. An estimated 40% of children in the system have high medical or behavioral needs.
  • The total number of foster homes fell by 137 since the original audit, from 4,209 in January 2018 to 4,072 in January 2019.
  • The agency needs to do more to create a culture of respectful communication between foster parents and DHS caseworkers.
  • DHS has managed to reduce the number of children placed in hotels. It has dropped from a high of 51 in February 2018 to six in January 2019. That reduction, however, has increased the number of children being sent to repurposed juvenile detention centers and other institutions.
  • Another result of reducing the number of children in hotels is a reduction in overtime. The agency cut overtime from a peak of nearly 28,000 hours in March 2018  to about 11,640 by November 2018.
  • DHS still hasn’t centralized the monitoring of key metrics, such as turnover and family leave use. This has limited the agency’s ability to have a clear picture of staff coverage in districts and field offices statewide. A newly hired Child Welfare business manager is expected to address this need.
  • A bill passed during the 2019 legislative session, House Bill 2033, removes the requirement that caseworkers have a bachelor’s degree, which they hope allows for more support staff to become caseworkers.

The audit focused on three areas: management practices, foster parent retention and recruitment and staffing issues.

The agency pointed out they have implemented eight of the 24 recommendations made in the original audit.

“We are in the early stages of reforming a child safety system that’s been struggling to care for Oregon’s vulnerable children and families for years. The report confirms for us that we’re on the right path, but substantial work remains ahead,” Fariborz Pakseresht, DHS director, said in a statement.

There are 7,546 children in foster care today, according to the agency.