The Oregon Secretary of State’s office released an audit of the state’s child welfare system in January that found that overwork and systemic mismanagement are endangering some of Oregon’s most vulnerable children. Our coverage included a conversation with DHS leadership and a child welfare advocate, and an in-depth interview with two current caseworkers.
We also wanted to get insight from former child welfare director Lena Alhusseini, who wrote an op ed in The Oregonian newspaper after the audit was released. Alhusseini served as the head of child welfare from November 2016 to May 2017. She sat down recently with “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller to discuss the barriers she faced when she tried to implement her vision to improve the agency.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity:
DM: You’ve been been working in child welfare for something like 30 years. What were your first impressions of Oregon’s child welfare system when you arrived at DHS?
LA: When I first arrived, I was warned there were issues. They had previously fired the people who were supervising child welfare. One was the child welfare director, who was working at headquarters. The other person was supervising the field, so I knew there was chaos.
DM: Just to remind folks, the most recent chaos that preceded your arrival was the Give Us This Day scandal, which listeners may remember. You say you got some warnings, what kinds of warnings did you get?
LA: Well, not a warning. I was given a heads up I had a lot of work ahead of me. And that we had to do much better for Oregonians and for the children and families. And that you know, everything’s on the table. I can introduce whatever model I wanted to do and come with a new vision for child welfare.
DM: So that was what you had been told. When you arrive what did you find?
LA: You know, they were right, there was chaos. For instance, the structure wasn’t working. Because they had fired two people and now, I wasn’t supervising, for instance, my field offices. But I had to supervise my field offices. So it was a little bit strange. There was a strategic plan that wasn’t being directed by the child welfare director. You know, I couldn’t talk to legislators alone. I couldn’t do my own media, so there were lots of problems. But I did find amazing staff and people who were really committed to child welfare and who wanted to really work together to find solutions to the issues we had in Oregon. So I was inspired by the staff, to be quite honest with you.
DM: When you say you couldn’t direct your subordinates, you couldn’t direct the people who were working in your field offices — who was in charge of them?
LA: It was the person who was running “self sufficiency.” So the whole structure wasn’t really conductive for me to move forward. And I think it all happened, if I may, because of the Give Us This Day … What that woman does was horrible and criminal but it was conflated with a systematic issue and it wasn’t systematic. So all that happened, afterwards was a series of the best of intentions, but not really thought through. So firing the two child welfare directors and then you know, having staff focusing on finishing all the overdue cases took them a little bit away from the practice. So it was a series of really trying to do the right thing, but when you look at it in hindsight, it wasn’t thought through.
DM: The day you resigned last May, you sent an email to then-DHS director Clyde Saiki. You told him that you didn’t have the agency to achieve a true transformation of child welfare with the structure he had in place. It seems like you’re describing here for us, the structure that was in place and the problems you saw with it, but what was the transformation that you wanted to achieve that you say you couldn’t?
LA: So before I came, Oregon had invested, at least for five years, in a model called Differential Response, which is really a less adversarial way to sort of work with families. It’s all about risk assessment. The cases come in and you look at the cases that are low risk. And that’s called the “alternative track,” and you offer families, whether they want it, support, whether it was parenting education or things like drug addiction [services] or what have you. So you paid for and provided all the supports they needed to make sure the children stayed at home and were safe and were in a happy environment. And if the cases were high risk, they went the traditional track, which is investigative track.
And Oregon had done an beautiful job with implementing this, and rolling it out. And it had been rolled out until about half of the state had differential response, and the rest were coming. They halted it in September, and I had come on board in November. They halted it in September because they were concerned about safety risks with Differential Response. But when you look in hindsight, a lot of those safety risks were because a lot of the staff were told to focus on overdue assessments, to finish the overdue work they hadn’t done. So Differential Response is very sophisticated. If you’re not focused on it, you’re going to have issues. So they halted it because of safety concerns. When I came, I wanted to restart it, and I wasn’t able to.
DM: What was the evidence that you looked at that made you say, “This is working?”
LA: You’re tailoring services to the needs of that situation. You know, your child is the focus of your gravity, in terms of how you assess the risk. You know you could see the transition between 2011 to 2015. Less children were going into foster care. And they had invested so much money and resources and working with partnerships, with community organizations. So it seemed to be working. The concerns about the safety risks weren’t really for me, the data wasn’t very clear. Because what they had done — and that was a big reason they had stopped Differential Response — they had a report that looked back three years prior. So like 2014-2016. The final data came in I think it was September 2016. And they only looked at three Differential Response counties. But they didn’t look at the rest of the state. And I said, well how can you compare and contrast when you don’t know what’s happening everywhere else, you know? And I was told, you can’t do that.
DM: Why not? What was the reason? You wanted to actually provide more data and to do a more apples-to-apples comparison. What kind of response did you get?
LA: We can’t do that. It won’t look good.
DM: Where did that response come from?
LA: It came from the DHS director at the time.
DM: Clyde Saiki.
DM: “It won’t look good?”
LA: That was what I was told. And you know, he told my staff to stop it. So although I did promise, in the legislature, when I was testifying, I wanted to do a whole statewide assessment — like a needs assessment. And see what worked, what didn’t. We can’t go forward without data. But I wasn’t able to do that. And that was really when I decided, I think. I’m not going to achieve anything, if I don’t have any of the tools — or the agency — to do anything. And that’s why I left.
DM: When there are some well-publicized horror stories about abuse of children by family members, do you understand why some policy makers would use a lens of child safety — meaning sometimes, or often, safety from family members and use that as their primary lens? Have that be the primary way that they see the work that a child welfare office does. That the most important thing is make sure kids are safe and that’s more important than applying a how do we provide support to a family, kind of mentality.
LA: And I understand that, and that’s the emotional response … I know it’s coming from a good place. It’s all good intentions. However, I mean, you have to look. If you look at data, the child’s best interest is to stay at home. One out of five children who are in foster care do well. The rest really have a lot of averse affects from being in foster care in their lives. So, if we can keep them safe, let’s try and keep them safe. But also, it’s not a zero sum game. It doesn’t mean if you’re focusing on the child, it doesn’t mean you’re not focusing on the family.
… I read somewhere “Child welfare is not brain surgery; it’s actually more difficult.” Because there’s so many moving parts, so we can’t be so black and white about it. You really have to look at the risk assessment. What your actions do. How you’re going to affect the life of the child. Look short-term, look long-term. Can you help that family? Help empower the family? So yes, I understand the emotional response and yes, the child is the center of gravity. But it’s not black and white. The gravity has lots of moving points. All the unintended consequences can sometimes take us to the wrong direction, instead of helping the child. And that’s you know, Oregon is removing children at 50 percent higher than the national rate. That’s not good.
DM: How do you explain that?
LA: Well, I mean, right now they stopped Differential Response in June. I think a bill came out, I just read the other day, in Douglas county the CASA figures they had a 400 percent increase in cases. So you know, DR basically looked at cases where there was poverty, for instance, or where there were issues of the family going through hardships and provided services to them. That helped them to get where they wanted to go. But when you look at the system, as if everyone is a potential criminal with bad intentions, you are overwhelming the system. So the caseworkers who should only have like 12 cases, have like 24 … How can they do their work? They’re going to always err on making sure the child is safe and remove the children, because they don’t have the tools. They don’t have the time. It’s not fair that kind of overwhelming work load on our caseworkers.
DM: How much of this for you in Oregon is a question of resources? Of more money from the legislature to pay for more caseworkers more support services, putting more foster parents into the system? And how much of it is a cultural or ideological problem in terms of the kinds of things you’ve already been outlining?
LA: I think it’s a little bit of both. I mean, certainly, resources are always a problem, whether you want more staff or more money. But also you need to look at the system. And think a little bit more strategically. You have community groups who are willing and able to work with you, perhaps to build their capacity up to be your support system, your line of defense.
I think we need more innovation. We need vision. And I think yes, thank you for giving money. But money isn’t going to solve your problem … The cases are increasing. If you’re not finding placements, if you’re not retaining your staff … I think 25 percent of the staff leave. They’re having a hard time recruiting people. I mean, yes, give the 100, 200 [additional] case workers — how many can you hire in 6 months? How much change can you really affect? You have to be a little bit more strategic in your thinking. I don’t think it’s just a question of money. It’s leveraging your partnerships in Oregon. You have amazing community groups who are willing and able to work with you.
DM: One thing I noticed is an enormous difference in scale in the organization you ran before you got to Oregon and what you were in charge of when you arrived here. You had been the CEO of a nonprofit in New York City with a budget of about 4 million dollars. The Child Welfare budget is more than 100 times that, 500 million dollars or so …
LA: (laughing) True.
DM: Were you ready for the scale of this job?
LA: I’ll be honest, I knew what I was up against, but I was working with wonderful people like Laurie Price, who’s a deputy and Marilyn Jones, who I think is an amazing child welfare director. But I’m working with people who have all the knowledge. The reason I was brought on was because I … showed I had vision, and I get things done. And I looked at things with an innovative eye.
So in Jordan, for instance I worked with the queen of Jordan, Queen Rania, to do a whole national plan of action for child welfare. And when I came to New York for instance, [I worked] in the Settlement House, which actually means an organization which provides services from the cradle to the grave. I really sort of brought new ideas and new things. So they brought me on because I was a visionary and I get things done. And it wasn’t my knowledge of state politics or my knowledge of how state systems work. But I do have knowledge from my working with UNICEF, or working with national governments. I do know, what works and what doesn’t. And for me it’s community. You have to work with community.
DM: As you said you have some faith, or a lot of faith, in the current head of the child welfare office. There is also now a new director of DHS. Clyde Saiki is no longer there. Nevertheless, based on everything you’ve just said and serious criticisms of a pervasive culture and philosophy of how this this office does its work, do you believe the situation is going to get significantly better anytime soon?
LA: Well, it doesn’t all depend on the new DHS director — though I like what he’s been saying … He’s saying we’re going to be listening to our staff, we’re going to be working together. So what he’s saying is correct. It’s just, it has to be an effort by the legislature. Because sometimes when you’re putting undue expectations, such high expectations on DHS it will become a culture of fear. Because if they don’t deliver, they’ll be in the news again. So it has to be a strategic partnership between the legislature, between the community, between DHS and I believe if that happens, if there’s an honest, transparent conversation on what is truly doable and it’s led by child welfare. Because Marilyn knows her work, and she knows exactly what is needed. I think that would be transformational. But you know, too many cooks spoil the broth. I think that might be a situation there.