Last month, Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson (R) released an audit of the state’s child welfare system, which has lost almost half its capacity in the past five years.
According to the report, Oregon lacks an adequate supply of foster parents to take care of some foster children, leading to the contentious and costly practice of what the agency refers to as “unplaced foster youth” spending some nights at hotels and offices. The report also took to task the Department of Human Services — which oversees about 7,600 children in Oregon’s foster care system — for management failures that have left some children at risk, as well as for a high rate of social worker turnover.
The audit notes that “career foster homes” in Oregon have been more than halved in recent years, declining from 3,800 homes in 2011 to 1,727 homes in 2016. During the same time frame, placements with relatives have grown by 158 percent.
According to the report, more foster homes are needed to handle the needs of foster youth with serious mental and physical health needs, but several issues have prevented the recruitment and retention of foster parents in the state, including rising costs, a lack of respite options, a slow certification process and mistreatment from the Department of Human Services (DHS).
“With increasingly limited options available, children with acute needs may end up in foster placements that are not equipped to handle their specific issues,” the audit said. “They may be placed with foster families or relatives that have no experience in providing the appropriate level of care and have little training and inadequate guidance and support from the agency.”
Richardson knows better than most about the challenges foster families face. Nearly 30 years ago, he and his wife took in a 9-year-old girl who had cycled through several foster homes and a broken adoption. That experience taught Richardson that “some child welfare administrators were bullies,” according to an email he sent out in early February.
Richardson sees his experience reflected in that of caregivers who have left the Oregon foster care system, and he hopes the governor and state legislators take action. This year, that will have to happen quickly.
In 2018, Oregon has an abbreviated legislative calendar that wraps up on March 11, placing a shortened window for the legislature to take up some of Richardson’s recommendations. One candidate for governor has already pitched a $50 million plan to fund “rapid-improvement teams.” Last week, Gov. Kate Brown (D) announced a $14.5 million staffing plan to boost the DHS workforce by 185 positions, including 150 caseworkers. The state’s child welfare agency also recently reached an agreement to reduce the use of hotels to house foster youth and limit the amount of time they can spend in such placements.
In a conversation with The Chronicle of Social Change, Richardson talked about how his experiences as a foster parent shaped his perspective and what the state should do to combat its declining pool of foster parents. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
How did you come to be a foster parent?
Well, at that point, we had seven girls from like 13 to 14 down to a couple of years old. And a CASA [Court Appointed Special Advocate] worker who we knew from our church had come to us and said that she was working with a little girl whose mother had an incurable genetic disease and this was a real sweet child that has been bounced around to foster homes and had serious problems. This CASA worker said she would just flourish if she had sisters.
So, we thought about it, considered it, pondered it, prayed about it, and felt like we could do this, and it would be a great right to give a child a better shot. So, we said, “Now, this child deserves to have a family and not be fearful that somehow a caseworker is going to show up, break out black plastic bags, put her stuff in it, and take her away to some other foster home.”
We had a difficult time with the bureaucracy that made it really difficult for us to become parents, but we just stuck with it. It took about nine months, but she became a member of our family and was welcomed by my seven daughters. From that day forward, she was just one of our eight daughters.
One of the reasons why she had been hard to adopt was because she might have Huntington’s Chorea disease and she might have to be cared for in her late 30s to 40s, just like her mom. So, anyways, we were prepared to do whatever was necessary. Then just a few months ago — she’s 35 now — she has been wanting to know if it’s going to start manifesting. So, she took the test and found out that she does not have it, and so it’s like a pardon from a death sentence. That’s life-changing, so we’re all so excited for her.
The audit your office prepared says that DHS is driving foster parents away. One of the recommendations in your audit is “create and maintain a culture of respectful communication between foster parents and DHS caseworkers.” How do you think that poor culture has affected foster parent recruitment and retention?
It’s had a tremendous effect because there are caseworkers and leaders that make promises to foster parents and then don’t follow up. In one situation that I’m aware of, they promised that the child would only be there a few days and then they just kind of disappeared for weeks. That is a breach of duty to the foster parents to give them the support they need, to follow up with them, and to help ensure that they have their needs met or else they’re just going to pull out of the system, which is what has happened.
The situation we went through like 27 years ago or so was frustrating because of bureaucracy. I mean, we were told when we went in to talk about adopting Mary they said, “Well, you just can’t come in and say you want to adopt a child.” I said, “Well, I thought that was your goal – was to have children that are in foster care who need to be adopted to have parents that will adopt them.”
They said, “That’s not how it’s done.” So, I just kind of put my hands on my lap, paid homage, kissed the ring, and said, “What do we need to do?”
During the audit, I talked to individuals about becoming foster parents and one couple just said, “You know, we looked into it, but they treat you like you’re a criminal and we just don’t have to put up with that.” So, I think that there should be – this is something you’ve got to be careful with because you do not want to endanger anyone or any child, but there ought to be a better way to streamline the process for blue-chip foster parents. There needs to be an evaluation into how the system is evaluating foster parents because one size doesn’t fit all.
The practice of putting kids up in hotel rooms or in offices when they enter the system has gotten a big chunk of media attention. What can the state do to stop that practice?
Without foster parents, caseworkers can’t do their jobs, including such as we see in Oregon with caseworkers spending the night in hotels with foster children when they didn’t have a place to take them. That just makes the children’s situation worse.
In the short term, I don’t see how they can – meaning in the next few weeks – because they don’t have the caseworkers to do the recruiting. They don’t have any other resource or group to help recruit foster parents. So, when the police bring the child to the Department of Human Services and say, “The parents are in jail for drugs; here’s three kids,” they have to take them. They can’t turn them away.
So, there has to be a place for them. If they don’t have foster families in place, then they just have to do whatever is necessary. For a while, they were having them staying in DHS at offices, but because of bad press they stopped doing that and now they can go to hotels. But the cost for two caseworkers to spend the night on all overtime with a single child is just horrendous and it’s not satisfactory for the child, the caseworkers or the system.
Beyond improvements at DHS, are there other ways the state can help support the foster care system?
There is a program in Oregon called Every Child. They’re in seven or nine counties right now and they are hoping to expand that to 20 to 30 soon and grow up from there. But they help support foster parents by partnering with DHS. So, I’ve got staff researching them right now, but the story they told sounded really, really good. Really impressive because they have a lot of volunteers that are just trying to help make things better for foster children and for foster parents.
There’s a church up in Clackamas County, which is just east of Portland. This church has like 3,000 members and they have a foster family committee that gets together at least once a month and they get certified to provide respite care for foster families so that the parents can have a date night out or whatever else needs to be done. The clerk for Clackamas County is a woman named Sherry and she’s the one that told me about it. She said that they do a real service that nobody even knows about.
How can the state do a better job with foster parent recruitment?
We can certainly learn some from other states. At least one state has used geo-mapping to locate foster homes around the state. They also have the data as to where there’s vacancy so that caseworkers when they get a child can look and see where to go where they can place the child now. So, they’ll just send out a new email saying, “Is there anybody in the system that’s got a home for a 7-year-old?” Right now, it’s just a chaotic process and should be organized and data-driven and that will take technology.
As someone that has been through the fostering process, do you think it’s harder to foster children than maybe when you took in your daughter many years ago?
From the report, it’s clear that the Oregon child welfare system has gotten worse, that the support for foster parents has decreased, that the load on the caseworkers has increased, and that the system is more dysfunctional than it was than when we were fostering 27 years ago. But the real focus needs to be not on placing or putting blame on the past, but what are we going to do to make it better for the future and for our children.
My job is going to be to help do the follow-up and help keep the people, the legislators and the governor aware of the status as much as I can as secretary of state so that together we can change a foster care system that is dysfunctional and make it welcoming, loving, efficient and effective for those children who no longer can stay in their biological homes.
All over the country the need is great and must be addressed. A good government should set priorities and caring for a state’s children should be at the top of the list.