Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order Thursday establishing a Child Welfare Oversight Board charged with improving the state’s beleaguered child welfare system.
The governor will chair the board and they will meet every other week. The governor will also form an on-site crisis management team to ensure the recommendations from the group are implemented. In addition, the governor announced, she will place one of her senior staffers inside the agency to be her on-the-ground representative.
“Oregon’s child welfare system is overburdened to the point where I have serious concerns about the state’s ability to sufficiently serve our most vulnerable children,” Brown said in a statement.
The governor’s announcement comes after years of bad headlines, audits and reports that all point to the need for systemic changes to ensure Oregon’s foster care children are protected.
Earlier this week, a national advocacy group filed a class-action lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Human Services accusing the agency of revictimizing children in its foster care system. The lawsuit says state leaders have failed to address documented problems in the child welfare system for at least a decade.
Child welfare officials have also come under fire from legislators recently for their struggle to find enough appropriate treatment beds for foster care children. Instead, Oregon has been sending some children in the foster care system to out-of-state facilities — including some facilities accused of abuse — and placing others in former jails.
The new board will advise Brown on a wide range of issues, including how to bring the kids currently out of state back to Oregon. They will also advise her on how to create more therapeutic foster care beds in Oregon for youth with specialized needs and operational challenges within the Department of Human Services. Brown's order said the oversight board will address the agency's operational challenges, such as its dealings with public records, communications, hiring and human resources.
The governor's order to create a "crisis management team" — or what she referred to as being akin to a "SWAT team" — is a similar to one her former political opponent Knute Buehler, a former lawmaker and Republican gubernatorial candidate, offered in February of 2018. At the time, he suggested creating a "rapid improvement team" to stabilize the agency. Brown requested an additional $14.5 million to hire more caseworkers at the time, but she didn't create a new team.
The governor also already has several groups — such as the Foster Care Advisory Committee — to tackle problems in the system.
But the latest creation, she said, would be small, it would meet regularly and she plans to chair the group.
The members of the oversight group include: David Sanders, with Casey Family Programs, Nan Waller, a judge, Atjit Jetmalani, a child psychiatrist, Leslie Sutton, with the Oregon Council on Developmental Disabilities, Pat Allen, the director of the state's health authority, and Matt Garrett, former director of the Oregon Department of Transportation.
The governor dismissed the idea she was prompted to act now due to the lawsuit or bad headlines. She said she wanted to wait to give the head of DHS, Fariborz Pakseresht, who has held the job for roughly two years, and Child Welfare's Marilyn Jones, who has been on the job for one year, time to learn the job.
“My focus and the agency's focus is ensuring the safety of all of the children in the system," Brown said. "It’s making sure we’re bringing on and retaining enough caseworkers and enough staff that have the training needed to address the needs of both the children and the families in the system. And the third piece is making sure we’re recruiting and retaining foster parents throughout the state frankly that reflect the diversity of our communities."