How many blistering evaluations does it take to illustrate a child welfare program is utterly failing the young people it's supposed to serve and protect?
It should be one. Yet in Oregon, it's closer to a half dozen.
The most recent, an extensive audit by the Secretary of State's Office, echoed some of the problems that were outlined in earlier critiques, including one dating back to 2002.
The audit, released Jan. 31, found Oregon's Department of Human Services has failed to collect critical information leading to some bad decisions about the placement of children in foster care. The agency hasn't supported foster families and has had no statewide plan to recruit new ones. Morale is so low, it's hard to retain case workers, yet as many as 700 are needed to sustain the current foster care program.
Hobbling all efforts to rebuild, the agency has failed to track even the most basic of data points on children, current and prospective foster families or employees. One number is known — that Oregon places about nine out of 1,000 kids in foster care. That's nearly double the national average. But no one is sure why, or whether that helps children or not.
This yearlong, deep dive into a troubled agency was appalling, especially for an agency responsible for children.
Yet Gov. Kate Brown and state lawmakers aren't acting like it.
Democratic lawmakers say it'll take years to address problems that were decades in the making. They argue that they just budgeted an additional $30 million to address some of these issues.
Corvallis Democratic Sen. Sara Gelser told Oregonian/OregonLive reporter Hillary Borrud "one of the reasons we have new leadership is because we've had rigorous oversight from the Legislature over the last two to three years. That has pushed this issue forward with the governor's support to get that done."
Lawmakers who meet sporadically — this year for just 35 days - aren't the ones who can consistently ride this issue. That's Gov. Kate Brown's job and foster children need more than her "support" to get that done. They need her leadership.
But Brown's office appears too busy deflecting the audit's results.
In an email reported by the Salem Statesman Journal, Brown's spokesman Chris Pair claimed audits from Secretary of State Dennis Richardson's office were "just about politics."
In fact, work on the child welfare audit began a year ago, before Richardson, the only Republican in a statewide elected position, took office. It was ordered by his predecessor, Democrat Jeanne Atkins.
Richardson and the auditors were disappointed by the comments and addressed them in an email to the governor. Brown, a former Secretary of State, should know better than anyone how auditors strive to be objective and independent watchdogs for the state.
There's no room in this crisis for such divisive deflection of the facts.
Oregonians have been assured over and over that these problems were being addressed. We now know those efforts failed. We need more information, more often to be sure that this sinking ship is being sufficiently righted and put back on course.
Let's take a cue from Brown. She's asked the new human services Director Fariborz Pakseresht to provide monthly reports on his progress, which she'll in turn publish online. But earlier such reports have lacked detailed data, critical analyses or context.
We need regular assessments from Brown's office providing detailed progress on her clearly communicated and measurable goals for hiring and training caseworkers, supporting and certifying foster families and creating a centralized system to accept complaints of suspected child abuse and neglect. That's to assure Oregonians that the 11,000 children moving through the system are not forgotten.
Several leaders have cycled through top positions at the Department of Human Services as these problems have continued. Voters, too, will soon have a chance to make their own decision about leadership.
— The Oregonian