Secretary of State audit finds 'chronic and systemic shortcoming - KPTV - FOX 12

Secretary of State audit finds 'chronic and systemic shortcomings' at Department of Human Services

Posted: Updated: Jan 31, 2018 01:01 PM

An audit commissioned by Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson describes troubling and persistent problems within the Department of Human Services’ Child Welfare Program.

The audit, the results of which were released Wednesday, found “serious problems” in the state foster care system, with a dwindling supply of available foster homes resulting in children spending “days and weeks in hotels.”

FOX 12 first reported children in protective care were sleeping in DHS offices and hotels in August 2016. 

According to the Secretary of State’s audit, the practice of using office space as sleeping quarters ended after a class action lawsuit was filed in 2016, but children in the agency’s care continue to be housed in hotels.

According to the audit, between September 2016 and July 2017, DHS placed a total of 189 children in hotels at least 284 times. One child, just ten years old, stayed in a hotel under the care of two caseworkers for 81 days.

MORE: Lawsuit filed against DHS after foster care 'crisis' forces kids in motels, offices instead of homes

Although DHS was found not to be tracking or reviewing the costs of the hotel stays, the audit revealed state credit card receipts show DHS employees’ charges for hotel rooms increased 72 percent from 2016 to 2017, with the total cost of hotel stays, including shift-differential pay, meals, and incidentals estimated at $2.5 million over that time period.

In addition, the audit found “chronic and systemic management shortcomings” at DHS, with response to problems within the agency described as “slow, indecisive, and inadequate.”

MORE: FOX 12 Investigators: Housing foster kids in hotels is costing Oregon millions

Field staff interviewed by auditors reported “questionable management tactics,” including threats to take away scheduled leave time to push staff to complete more investigations.

The audit also found the agency’s child welfare system to be “critically understaffed,” with reported caseloads three to four times higher than what is considered optimal.  One caseworker, for instance, reported being assigned more than 20 new investigations in a single month.

MORE: Retired DHS caseworker calls unplacement issue a ‘crisis’

The agency considers an optimal caseload to be no more than seven new investigations per month.

Staff also reported incidents of bullying and intimidation by senior staff.

According to the audit, the agency has also seen considerable turnover among caseworkers. In 2016 alone, caseworker turnover was 26 percent, with 13 percent of workers resigning.

In one interview with auditors, a foster parent reported calling CPS to report themselves in order to get services from a caseworker they couldn’t reach otherwise.

To meet current staffing needs, according to auditors, DHS would have to increase field staff by 35 percent, or 769 more workers.

Compounding problems inside the agency, the audit discovered a growing shortage of foster homes in the system, with the supply of homes decreasing from 3,800 in 2011 to 1,727 in 2016.

MORE: Lawsuit contends more kids in DHS care ‘unplaced,’ kept in hotels

The audit found the agency did not make adequate efforts to recruit or retain foster homes and families, with management focusing DHS’ efforts more on placing children with relatives. 

That practice was found to be counter-productive since foster homes serve roughly four times more children than relative homes.

At the same time, the audit found reimbursement payments to foster families haven’t kept pace with cost-of-living increases.  Although reimbursement rates are scheduled to increase in 2018, the state will be paying foster families roughly $26.50 per day, per child, which will cover only 74 percent of the cost to raise a child in the Pacific Northwest.

The audit also found the agency doesn’t know its current capacity of foster homes, which homes have openings, and what behavioral and special needs families are trained for and equipped to accept.

DHS was also found not to be using technology, data, and predictive analytics to drive decision making.

To address the agency’s problems, auditors made a total of 24 recommendations, including improving the overall culture at DHS, increasing staffing, and adopting data-driven decision making. The agency was also instructed to monitor caseloads, increase foster home capacity, and revise and update its workload model.

MORE: New ‘Nest’ program attempting to combat Oregon DHS hoteling issue

In response to the audit, new DHS Director Fariborz Pakseresht acknowledged the agency’s problems with chronic understaffing, high turnover, and the need to improve management practices.

“I appreciate the audit and the attention it brings to such important issues,” said Pakseresht in a written statement. “We need to tackle the root cause of these issues, not just the symptoms.”

Pakseresht agreed to all 24 recommendations made by auditors.

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