Governor Brown’s DHS Fails to Keep Oregon’s Foster Children Safe
DHS repeatedly failed to perform regular visits at foster homes and provide required updates on Oregon’s child welfare system under Governor Brown’s watch. Why didn’t Governor Brown use her power as Secretary of State to audit the Department of Human Services and find out why state officials failed to investigate and prevent child abuse?
Foster children: Oregon officials keep key data on safety from public
By Denis C. Theriault / The Oregonian / OregonLive
SALEM — Despite years of warnings, Oregon officials are struggling with two of the most basic ways to keep foster children safe and healthy: monthly visits from caseworkers and prompt investigations of abuse.
What’s more, they’ve made it more difficult for the public to track any progress on those vital measures.
Performance metrics in monthly “dashboard” reports — meant as an antidote to abuse and neglect by giving the public a window into the child welfare system — have gone years without updates, a review by The Oregonian/OregonLive has found.
Starting in the summer of 2011, about when the Department of Human Services switched to a new computer system, officials stopped posting monthly charts tracking face-to-face checkups, caseworkers’ response times after abuse claims, and how often abuse victims in foster care are abused again.
Some of that data, on face-to-face visits, was quietly restored in May 2014. And officials stress that they continued collecting data for internal use. Still, advocates and others interested in the system have gone years without a way to quickly spot trends before they metastasize into something more serious.
Having access to that data is an especially important check on an agency that’s faced several lawsuits in recent years — paying out millions of dollars in judgments — over allegations that it failed to adequately intervene in cases that resulted in sex abuse, serious injuries or death.
“These little snapshots of data are all that advocates have, that community members have, to get even a glimpse of what’s happening to kids in foster care,” said Pamela Heisler, a former foster child and longtime advocate who served on DHS’ Child Welfare Advisory Committee and helped write a safety report for the agency in 2009. “If they’re not being updated, there’s no one to hold [DHS] accountable to state and federal polices or to their own goals.”
Caseworkers are essential
State officials say they’ve made improvements — and that they’re working to share more data.
But numbers obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive from DHS, while confirming some modest gains, show more than 1,000 children every month are still waiting longer than 30 days for checkups that are seen as the first line of defense against abuse and neglect. The numbers don’t show how much longer the waits are.
Beyond checking for obvious harm, caseworkers rely on regular visits to ensure that children in foster homes are receiving any needed mental health care, for example, and are adjusting to new schools.
“Who do they have besides their caseworker? It’s their main line for getting the help they need,” said Heisler, who spent 11 years in foster care, sometimes in homes “more abusive than the homes I’d been removed from.”
Meanwhile, according to an internal report from January obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive, caseworkers’ timeliness when it comes to investigating abuse claims — including attempts to check in — has slipped.
With the most serious accusations, caseworkers are supposed to respond within 24 hours, precious time when deciding whether a child is in so much danger he or she must be removed from a home. In less serious cases, a response is supposed to come within five days.
In June 2011, the most recent month shown in the dashboards, caseworkers hit those marks 83 percent of the time. That had fallen to 57 percent in the last three months of 2014, according to the internal report.
“Unfortunately, without access to timely data, the next time we’ll read about children in foster care is when they’re involved in a terrible abuse situation,” said Mike Balter, the most recent chair of the child welfare committee and the longtime director of Portland’s Boys & Girls Aid Society.
Long history of challenges
Oregon’s struggles with foster care — managing a system responsible for more than 8,000 children on any given day — are nothing new.
In 2008, the federal government issued a review that found Oregon’s system had flunked 11 of 14 areas seen as important to keeping children safe, including timely abuse investigations. The state failed a similar review in 2001.
And while the U.S. Administration for Children and Families noted gains in its most recent review, released in 2010, officials also said the state had a long way to go before it joined the best states in taking care of children removed from their homes, often because of parents’ substance abuse.
But Oregon’s progress has been mixed since then.
In August 2010, weeks after officials crowed about hiring more than 100 new caseworkers since 2007, DHS began mailing “notices of service reductions” to clients — fallout from Oregon’s recession-battered budget falling in the red by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Staffing, at 80 percent of the level DHS deemed adequate for expected workloads in 2008, fell below 68 percent in 2011. Last year, officials wrote in a five-year work plan for the child welfare division that staffing dipped as low as 60 percent over “the last several years.” With Oregon’s economy improving, and DHS’ budget growing, officials hope to see workload ratios top 85 percent in the next two years.
“Caseworker contact is one such area that is dramatically impacted by the workload levels,” the plan says.
Officials also fret in the plan that rates for monthly visits dropped to “approximately 50 percent” by February 2014, then climbed to 69 percent by June 2014. And they said it’s been a “struggle” to promptly finish abuse investigations.
Those challenges, however, haven’t been reflected in the dashboard data. DHS instead reported data for 2012 and 2013 to the feds — and eventually, on its website, in the form of “data books” first published in 2014.
According to federal data, the state’s 75 percent compliance rate for monthly visits in 2012 fell to 70 percent in 2013. That put Oregon above only Montana, Mississippi and Puerto Rico.
For abuse investigations, DHS’ 2012 and 2013 data books say caseworkers managed to respond within a day in more than 73 percent of cases. That’s down from 80 percent in 2008, before the recession bludgeoned the state’s budget.
Response times remain a concern, though rates for monthly caseworker visits have inched upward.
DHS spokeswoman Andrea Cantu-Schomus said in May that 83.2 percent of foster children had received a visit within the previous month — close to the 90 percent target in federal law and DHS policy but still lagging well behind the top states.
DHS hired and trained 80 caseworkers after winning more money in the 2013-15 budget, and could add more.
“The increased staffing granted by the Legislature increased compliance,” Cantu-Schomus said.
“New data not available”
But for anyone outside DHS, that story has gone untold. The most relevant charts and bar graphs in the agency’s dashboard reports are still stuck in June 2011, with a curious promise appended to numbers that have been stale for years: “New data not available. Report will be updated as soon as possible.”
That’s particularly troubling for attorneys such as Josh Lamborn, who won a record $4.1 million settlement against DHS last year after jurors found the agency negligent in former foster mother Kimberly Janelle Vollmer’s abuse of two girls, ages 4 and 2.
“The public has a right to know what’s going on: They don’t have enough money to hire enough workers to effectively manage this many kids,” said Lamborn, who made clear that some of DHS’ problems also “exist systemically.” “But why would the public want to give them more money when they’re not showing the need for more money?”
Advocates blame DHS’ 2011 switch to a new computer system, which proved confounding for data tracking and, initially, for providers and foster parents who found themselves going weeks without pay. Cantu-Schomus said the change contributed to the ongoing challenges in publicly sharing performance metrics.
The agency eventually worked with the University of Kansas to launch a new public data site — separate from the dashboards and without the metrics the agency stopped regularly updating.
DHS now says it plans to revamp that site by adding back some of the missing information. Cantu-Schomus said agency officials are testing reports that would show caseworkers’ abuse response times. She said DHS first discussed those changes in late 2014.
That’s welcome news for advocates and lawmakers concerned that such important information had dropped from public view for so long.
“These are key data points that need to be easily accessible to the public,” said Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, who sponsored legislation years ago to strengthen abuse investigations after the death of a 3-year-old under the watch of child welfare workers. “There should never be a circumstance where an upgrade in technology makes it harder to access information that was easily available before.”
— Denis C. Theriault