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Oregon’s beleaguered foster care system: Big plans, but shoddy implementation

A new audit of Oregon’s foster care system provides an excellent example of the horrendous imbalance in the attention that goes to policy creation and policy implementation. A couple of weeks ago we highlighted an audit with a similar theme in Nevada.

The remarkably thorough (and horrifying)  Oregon audit was released by the Secretary of State’s office at the end of January. The litany of problems is summed up in the audit’s opening comments:

“Management has failed to address a work culture of blame and distrust, plan adequately for costly initiatives, address the root causes of systemic issues, use data to inform key decisions and promote lasting program improvements.”

The audit reflects many of the issues we’ve been writing about in Governing and on or own website. Nearly a quarter of child welfare caseworkers leave their jobs every year. Caseloads are far greater than recommended levels, but positions are held vacant on purpose for budgetary reasons. A third of child welfare workers have been on the job for eighteen months or less. Managerial turnover is constant. Foster family recruitment is weak and the number of families is falling while caseloads are rising. Data quality is terrible. Caseworkers feel unsafe.

The list of problems goes on and on and on, with potentially tragic results for both families and children. A federal review of Oregon’s foster care in 2016 found it did not meet any of the federal government’s seven outcome measures.

Poor management leads to leakage of much needed dollars. As the audit points out, the Department of Human Services has paid out $39 million in legal settlements over the last dozen years “due to the agency’s inability to consistently keep children in their care safe from abuse and neglect.”

The audit describes in some detail the many efforts that were tried over the last dozen years to fix Oregon’s foster care system. There have been multiple staff reorganization efforts, but with little management attention to the disruption, culture change and time that each change effort takes. There also have been a number of new initiatives that were launched with enthusiasm, but without adequate training, staff or budget.

For example, in 2006 the department dove into the much-heralded best practice “Oregon Intervention Safety Model” to ensure child safety over the full timeline of a case. But inadequate training and staffing led to shortcomings in implementation. A few years ago, an ambitious re-training effort was launched and then halted a short while later when the department decided to put its training resources into yet another new idea, which also “sputtered in its development”.

Likewise, a critical workload model was developed in 2008 and updated in 2013, with the goal of accurately calculating staffing needs. But the department has never been budgeted or staffed to the recommended level. In 2015, the Department of Human Services “transferred its workload modeling team to different unit, cut positions, and demoted key staff.” Since then, the workload model hasn’t been updated even though multiple legal, programmatic and societal changes have occurred. The lack of care attached to staffing analysis, coupled with a very problematic child management system, has resulted in the legislature getting inaccurate information about staffing needs.

The message is pretty clear. There has been no shortage of big new initiatives in Oregon’s child welfare and foster care system. But there has been a tremendous deficit in both implementation and funding. “Several substantial reform efforts have been poorly planned and executed, then abandoned,” the audit says.

“For over a decade, management’s response to crisis and scrutiny has been to reorganize the system not to effectively plan to fix it.”


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