DHS struggles to fill child welfare jobs
SALEM — The state's Department of Human Services has made little progress in filling nearly 300 vacant positions in its child welfare division.
In the wake of a critical audit, Gov. Kate Brown asked lawmakers in February to fund 186 new jobs in the division in an ostensible effort to reduce employee workloads and burnout. The agency has filled just 18 of those new positions. Seven positions are in the interview process.
But as of June 1, DHS also had an additional 131 vacancies in the division from normal attrition. The agency was unable to provide a breakdown of that number by types of position on Tuesday, so it's unclear how many of those positions are caseworkers or other types of workers in the child welfare division.
DHS says the child welfare division has authorization for 2,922 positions. The number of vacancies "changes daily based on hiring and separations from the agency," spokeswoman Christy Sinatra wrote in an email to the EO/Pamplin Capital Bureau.
Agency officials say they plan to hire the new employees requested by the governor in stages through January of 2019.
Brown requested $14.5 million in state funding after a secretary of state audit, released Jan. 31, found the child welfare division suffers from a severe staff shortage and high burnout and turnover among its workers.
The Legislature approved $13.3 million from the state's general fund, and increased the amount of federal funds the state is allowed to spend for the purpose by $4.5 million in order to fund the positions.
Brown, who is up for reelection in November, asked for the new positions Feb. 22, about two weeks after her GOP opponent, Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend, proposed $50 million in new funding to "stabilize" the foster care system on the opening day of the short legislative session. That did not materialize.
The new positions created by the Legislature not only include caseworkers and aides, but also supervisors and human resources workers to speed up the hiring process.
Agency officials say it will take some time before new hires can relieve current workers' workload.
Even if all those vacant positions were filled tomorrow, it's possible that would not even be enough to meet the agency's needs.
The audit found that as of November 2017, the state would need to hire 769 more field workers to handle the workload.
The turnover rate has been high in the past 12 months for mid-level caseworkers, DHS records show.
Over the past year, an average of 26 mid-level caseworkers were hired every month, while 18 left the agency and six were promoted to other positions — leaving an average net gain of two workers in that position every month.
State Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, a vocal advocate for improving the state's child welfare system, says it's important for the agency to develop a culture of accountability as well as employee support.
"It's really hard work, and people burn out so quickly," Gelser said Monday, "And part of that culture change is really taking care of these people so they can do their job well."