Oregon’s scathing child welfare audit is no surprise for foster parents: Guest opinion

The results of the Oregon foster-care system audit are in, and they are more horrific than anyone could imagine – unless you work in or with foster care. For those of us who have seen firsthand the staff turnover, low morale and nonexistent support for foster parents, the audit serves as recognition, finally, of the dire circumstances our most vulnerable population must contend with if they seek state intervention and protection.

The findings come as no real surprise to me or my husband. Almost a decade ago, we became foster parents to help an underserved population and to gain experience as parents for when we decided to build our own family. The decision to become foster parents changed our lives. It set the course for the work we chose, the activism we focused on and ultimately, helped us create the family we now have.

But we saw how flawed the Department of Human Services’ foster-care system is, and the audit findings bear those out. The report highlights three major areas of concern – systemic problems including chronic mismanagement, an insufficient number of available foster families and years of understaffing – and makes 24 recommendations. Simply put, the agency doesn’t have enough people to meet the needs of Oregon’s children in crisis.

This has led to an unfathomable downward spiral of attrition that itself is the reason for a yearly budget drain of about $28 million. That’s what it takes each year to train newly hired caseworkers. The ideal would be to retain staff and use the $28 million dollars for improved programs for children, higher payments for foster families, and promotion of foster parents. The money also could be used to recruit more case workers to alleviate the load on existing staff.

As foster parents, we found the number of cases that workers had to juggle to be a stumbling block to the care that kids were provided. We had several foster kids placed with us who saw their state-assigned case worker less than once a month. One child was deliberately separated from his sibling, regardless of a policy that they should be kept together. The caseworker, who was close to retiring, didn’t seem to care that he was ripping two children’s lives apart. He made false promises that the two would have full visitation opportunities, and then stopped returning our calls.

Generally, we felt some caseworkers seemed apathetic because they were overloaded with cases. It seemed commonplace for them to promise care or assistance, but not follow through. On many occasions, caseworkers were dishonest, promising things they couldn’t provide to placate us, as foster parents. This created animosity and distrust.

We also saw the agency push to reunify foster children with their families, even when workers admitted the families hadn’t fully met the criteria for reunification. Due to lack of funding to ensure compliance with family treatment plans, it was commonplace to send kids back home – only to have them return to DHS in a vicious cycle. With a lack of foster care providers and caseworkers, the problems we saw could only have gotten worse.

We decided to quit foster care, becoming another foster-care statistic. Once we adopted our son, the best thing for our family was to remove ourselves from the culture of distrust we’d experienced. We devoted our time to making sure our son had the attention he finally deserved.

There is a culture within the agency that needs to change, and that comes from the highest levels. Managers resort to bullying their caseworkers to force results. Caseworkers suffer from burnout, leaving fragile and vulnerable children to suffer greater injustice within a system that is supposed to protect them.

It is no surprise to us that this important audit was a priority for Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. Richardson and his wife adopted their eighth daughter from foster care, and his experience resonated with us. We supported him in the election because of our belief that he would work to reform issues within the system. This audit is a culmination of that work.

Oregon’s children deserve much better and we are happy that Richardson and his team of auditors have highlighted areas that need improvement. Let’s hope our governor and Legislature are listening. With the start of the new 2018 legislative session, I really hope our elected officials make our children a priority.

Paul Rummell and his husband, Ben West, adopted their son through foster care and were plaintiffs in a lawsuit that successfully challenged Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage. They live in Wilsonville.