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Suffer the Little Children: How lack of transparency in a state agency endangers children

Cascade Commentary

Summary

A federal review found Oregon’s Child Welfare program to be in “substantial conformity” with NONE of the national standards for seven client outcome measures. The most important mission of DHS is protecting children from harm. Government transparency requires that DHS meet the benchmarks demanded by Governor Kulongoski and release relevant proof to the public.

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Oregon’s Department of Human Services (DHS) is charged with many health and welfare responsibilities. One important mission is protecting children in their care from harm. In response to a number of high-profile incidents, Governor Ted Kulongoski has issued two strong directives to the Child Welfare program. First, he has demanded the problems in the program be fixed (2008). Second, he wants “Critical Incident Response Team” (CIRT) reviews made available to the public within 60 days (2004). DHS Director Dr. Bruce Goldberg has promised caseworkers will have monthly face-to-face contact with children in 80% of their casework. How well is the agency meeting these directives? From all information available, it has failed. Moreover, DHS has failed to provide the citizens of Oregon with a transparent view of its problems.

The Child Welfare program failed a federal review in 2001 and failed again six years later. The 2007 federal review of services found Oregon failed to meet federal standards in 11 out of 14 measures. The review concluded that DHS Child Welfare failed or is in “substantial conformity” with NONE of the national standards for seven client outcome measures.

“Monthly quality contact with children occurred in only 55% of cases reviewed, and only 39% of the parents in reviewed cases had contact with their caseworkers.”

Oregon’s failures include the reoccurrence of maltreatment within 6 months and maltreatment of children in foster care. Some of this low performance was attributed in part to the lack of frequent and meaningful contact between DHS staff and children, parents or foster parents. Monthly quality contact with children occurred in only 55% of cases reviewed, and only 39% of the parents in reviewed cases had contact with their caseworkers. Dr. Goldberg promised an 80% monthly face-to-face contact rate by this year. Data is not yet publicly available to gauge any progress toward this goal, but transparent government demands that DHS release it soon. The 2001 and 2007 federal reviews note an ongoing concern that state services were not adequately provided to keep children safe in their homes (or in their foster homes) in 40% of the cases reviewed.

Other measures that failed in the 2007 federal review include: that children be protected from abuse and neglect (only 62.5% of cases reviewed met this standard); that children be safely maintained in their homes when possible (60%); and that children have permanency and stability in their living situation (46.3%).

While Gov. Kulongoski requested that Critical Incident Reports be released within 60 days, 14 Critical Incident Reports have been completed since 2004. Many Critical Incident Reports remain secret, and neither the governor’s office nor DHS have told Oregonians whether problems uncovered in these investigations are being solved.

“…Oregon’s caseworkers spent less time on direct client contact than any other state completing a staffing study.”

The Child Welfare Staffing Study is one outcome of a DHS $3.2 million contract with consultant McKinsey and Company, meant to take a fresh look at the entire department. According to the published study, “caseworkers were available for case-related work only 70 percent of the time, or less than 6 hours per day. 30%, or more than 2 hours per day, was non-available time including breaks, leave time, training, vacancies and non-case-related work. On average, less than 1 hour and 15 minutes a day were found to be spent communicating directly with clients. This means Oregon’s caseworkers spent less time on direct client contact than any other state completing a staffing study.

Since Governor Kulongoski is personally committed to the improvement of Child Welfare practices, and since both the federal reviews and the McKinsey staffing study point to continued dismal progress, the governor should now consider the following recommendations:

  • Declare a state of emergency in the child welfare department.
  • Require a weekly update from the Director of DHS regarding management actions to meet federal standards and the promise of achieving 80% client contact this year.
  • Appoint a legislative and citizen review team to monitor program improvements, Critical Incident Reports and the implementation of the recommendations in the McKinsey and Company report.
  • Mandate that Critical Incident Reports be made public in 60 days, as promised by Governor Kulongoski. Review the program gaps and error trends from all 14 Critical Incident Reports completed since 2004, implement a corrective action plan, and report on management actions.

Implementing these recommendations will go a long way toward making the state’s Child Welfare operations more transparent to all Oregonians and to improving the lot of the most vulnerable children under state care. Just as Governor Kulongoski shares his compelling stories of growing up in an orphanage, so may future governors share their stories of growing up in a family served by the Child Welfare department. Let’s do everything we can to ensure these future leaders, and all children under state care, live to tell their stories.

Shirley Iverson is a consultant for the Government Transparency Project at Cascade Policy Institute. From 1988 to 2005, Ms. Iverson held several high-level leadership positions within the Oregon Department of Human Services.

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Nancy Wheaton
Cascade Policy Institute
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Portland, Oregon 97225

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Cascade Policy Institute is a tax-exempt educational organization as defined under IRS code 501(c)(3). Nothing appearing in this Cascade Commentary is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of Cascade or its donors, or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before any legislative body. The views expressed herein are the author’s own.

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