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Child welfare system stumbles on foster family services

COURTESY PHOTO: KOIN 6 NEWS - Department of Human Services Director Clyde Saiki is focusing on solving problems with the state's child welfare system.SALEM — Oregon’s child welfare system failed to meet all of the standards in a recent federal assessment, Department of Human Services Director Clyde Saiki told lawmakers in an email Wednesday, April 20.

The state fell short of federal goals from foster parent recruitment and retention, to ensuring “children are first and foremost protected from abuse and neglect,” Saiki wrote, regarding the report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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EO MEDIA GROUPHe warned there is likely more bad news to come. The findings were only the first part of a two-phase review, and “it is very likely Oregon will not meet the standards in the final report.”

Oregon’s child welfare system, operated by the Department of Human Services, has a history of problems and has faced renewed scrutiny by lawmakers and the public since Willamette Week reported last year the agency continued to send children to a troubled Portland foster program.

Theoretically, Oregon could lose some of its federal child welfare money if the state fails to meet goals for improving the system. In practice, that has not happened.

Gene Evans, a spokesman for DHS, wrote in an email Wednesday that the federal government has not withheld any money from the state as a penalty for failing to meet such goals. Oregon’s child welfare program has already been on a federal “program improvement plan” since at least 2008.

Demanding accountability

State Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, said one of her takeaways from the report was the situation since 2008 has “gotten worse rather than better ... The agency has lacked adequate leadership for a long time.”

Gelser, who has criticized DHS’ failure to protect children and sponsored legislation earlier this year to force the agency take action when children are at risk, said it is time for the agency to clean house to remove employees who allowed the problems to grow.

“We need significantly new leadership at all levels of our child welfare agency and a culture change,” Gelser said. “And I think Clyde (Saiki) is the right person to make that happen ... The governor has made it really clear that is her priority and directive she’s put forward.”

Gelser said it was understandable the federal government had not withheld funds from Oregon because the program is already underfunded, and this causes problems such as overloaded caseworkers.

Oregon House Republicans suggested on Wednesday the agency could do a better job with its budget. “We must take action to demand accountability from our child welfare system and ensure that Oregonians’ tax dollars are being handled prudently, and in a way that maximizes positive outcomes for children in our child welfare system,” Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, who chairs the House Republican Budget Committee, said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, Oregon has plenty of company when it comes to being on a federal “program improvement plan”: states from Alaska to New York are also listed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services as being on such monitoring plans.

The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group. Hillary Borrud can be reached at 503-364-4431 or hborrud@eomediagroup.com.

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