The Department of Human Services is making progress in addressing key deficiencies identified during a 2018 audit report by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, Linn County Court Appointed Special Advocates volunteers and financial supporters were told Tuesday.
Jamie Ralls, a member of the seven-member audit team, and Kip Memmott, state audits director, talked about why the audit was so important and also why CASA programs make a big difference in helping solve foster care issues statewide. They were featured speakers during the annual “I Am For The Child” luncheon at the Linn County Fair & Expo Center.
CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) volunteers are appointed by judges to advocate for abused or neglected children in court and social service settings.
The duo said their boss, former Secretary of State Dennis Richardson — who died last week of cancer — not only supported the audit, his family believed in the CASA mission. In the 1990s, when he and his wife already had seven girls of their own, the Richardsons adopted another girl after learning about her needs through a CASA volunteer.
Ralls said the audit was both extensive and emotionally exhausting. Its three key findings were:
• The department and its Child Welfare offices had systematic and chronic management shortcomings that included a lack of statewide communication; disorganization; a work culture of blame and distrust; and a failure to plan adequately for costly initiatives.
• The department does not have enough foster placements to meet the needs of at-risk children, in part because there is no robust foster family recruitment program. The agency does not track data about how many foster placements are needed, nor the current capacity of foster homes.
• The agency is chronically understaffed. Employees have overwhelming workloads and there is a high staff turnover rate.
Ralls said the auditors met personally with caseworkers and shadowed them on work days.
“We saw the emotional duress they are under every single day,” she said. “We wanted to assure the workers that we were there to listen and to make things better."
“I would often go home at night and hug our four children, knowing they were safe, loved and taken care of,” Ralls said. “That’s not true for thousands of children in Oregon.”
Ralls said the audit pointed out that DHS was understaffed by 770 field staff members.
“Overtime was amounting to about $8 million per year and many staff members worked 50 to 100 hours of overtime per month,” Ralls said. “Children were being housed in hotels because there weren’t enough foster families.”
Caseworkers received little or no support, Ralls said, and the number of new cases assigned to each caseworker was far more than they could reasonably handle.
She talked about one caseworker who got 18 new cases per month, when six or seven would be ideal.
“She often went to some really rough places alone,” Ralls said. “She was young, engaged in her work, passionate and dedicated. But eight months later, when I met with her again, there was something missing, the spark was gone. She was tired of the losses outweighing the victories.”
The caseworker soon left DHS, Ralls said, part of a turnover rate of 23 percent annually,
Ralls said DHS has taken the audit to heart and is working toward solutions. In 2018, the state invested $14 million, which allowed the hiring of 186 more field staffers and also committed more money toward foster care families.
In the current legislative session, the state is asking for $100 million, money that could lead to the hiring of 500 more staff members, Ralls said.
DHS has decreased the backlog of child assessments from 13,000 to less than 4,500, Ralls said.
“Nurses are visiting more foster family homes,” Ralls said. “We are proud of the work that is underway, but there is still a lot of work to do to continue to right this ship.”
Ralls said DHS is using the audit report as a map to change the culture, advocate among legislators, recruit more foster families, increase staff and decrease turnover rates.
Ralls said CASA is needed in every county in the state.
And Memmott noted how one volunteer can make a difference, especially in the life of a vulnerable child. He said a child with a CASA advocate will spend several fewer months in foster care, statistics show.
He said audits are underway or will soon start for child care licensing facilities; mental health services; and public education.
Linn County CASA Executive Director Julie Gilman said there are 92 volunteers “who are walking side-by-side with children in need.”
She said 138 of 239 foster children have an advocate, but the number is far too low. Advocates commit to spending two years with their child; that’s the average length of time a child is in foster care.
“We just graduated 11 new advocates who will help change the lives of 14 children,” Gilman said. “But we have 30 more children in foster care than we had a year ago at this time. The number in need just keeps growing.”