STORY EXTRA: Email from retired DHS Supervisor Patty Cooper over foster care 'crisis'

Just before she retired from the Department of Human Services aftr a 29-year career, Patty Cooper sent an email out to DHS staff, outlining her concerns over the foster child care "crisis" she sees in Oregon. (KPTV)

The following is the full text of the email sent to Department of Human Services staff by Patty Cooper, who recently retired from her position as the Supervisor of Beaverton Adolescent Unit after a 29-year career with the DHS, outlining her concerns over the foster care "crisis" she sees in Oregon.Subject: final word"I came here because nobody came when I was there. One thing that is worse for the victim than hunger, fear, torture, is the feeling of abandonment, the feeling that nobody cares, the feeling that you don't count." Elie WieselI am a child of the ‘60’s and grew up believing I could help make change. Elie Wiesel was my hero and he taught me about speaking out.You probably thought you had heard the last from me, but I have one more message I want to leave behind. If there is any truth to the age/wisdom thing then maybe what I write will be wise enough to be a catalyst for change. I feel a bit arrogant thinking that I have something to say that others haven’t already said, but I’m ignoring that and here I go.For 29 years now I have worked in a system that people have said is broken. When it is said the system is broken, it usually means we are not doing our job right. Well, the system is broken, but DHS is not the system. We are part of the system.The other day we got an email from a DD worker asking what DHS was going to do with a youth. I responded back and said the question is, “what will we do with this youth”. We don’t operate in isolation. We don’t have all the power. In fact, in many ways, it feels like we have no power at all. We can’t choose where to place a child, we have to beg. We can’t make a service that doesn’t exist. We can’t demand that a service provider provide a service, we just refer and refer and refer again. We can’t place a child in a PRTS placement even if it is recommended. We can’t place a child in a DD home, even if they qualify. We can’t say no. Juvenile Dept can say no, OYA can say no, DD can say no, mental health can say no…but we can’t. We are expected to serve all children deemed unsafe and other children as well. We take voluntary placement cases, those youth that everyone else has said no to, but somehow we are supposed to find something/someplace for them. And when we can’t find someplace for them; we stay in offices and motels with the youth. No one from DD, mental health, juvenile department or any other community partners come and help care for these youth 24/7. No wonder everyone thinks we are the system. If we want to fix this broken system, then we have to look at the system that provides for the needs of these children as a whole.What the heck is going on when the highest level of care says the child’s needs exceed what they can provide, and then they look to us to find a placement? What the heck is going on when you have a DD child but DD doesn’t have a placement for them, but they look to us to find something. How do these partners, these other parts of the system, expect foster parents to be able to meet the needs of these children? They say it takes a village to raise a child…not a single entity, a village. If the entities that have services for these children don’t step up, we will continue to have a broken system and the blame will continue to land on DHS. We are the scapegoat.And when it comes to having no power to provide for the needs of children…don’t forget that insurance blocks our efforts and other partners efforts to meet needs. Insurance is part of the system too.Something else I have noticed in my 29 years of work in 4 branches; there are some problems no matter where you go. People don’t take their trash out of state cars, they don’t leave gas in the cars and they don’t return car keys. It’s been an issue in every branch dating back to 1987. It’s a human nature issue. We are all rushed and leave cars with our hands full of car seats, children and their belongings. We rush from place to place and we leave junk in the cars. Stop it! If only it was that easy.There is one problem that has existed for 29 years that isn’t a petty problem. We have had overdue assessments for as long as I can remember. Why is that? There seems to be a belief that it is because workers don’t work hard enough and management doesn’t supervise well enough. That’s an odd belief if you ask me. Really, for 29 years we have had slovenly workers and poor managers….in every branch in the state?I noticed early on in my career that this job is mathematically impossible. The number of tasks/duties a worker has is far greater than the number of hours in the day to get those tasks done. It is not humanly possible to meet all the requirements of the job. Can’t be done. I dare anyone who thinks it can be done under current conditions and circumstances to try to take on the duties of a ps worker for a week. It is not the work force that is the problem with overdue assessments. The problem is there is no stop to what comes in the door. We don’t get to say no. We don’t get to have waiting lists. And we keep getting more.Years ago the agency took notice of the fact that we had this huge opening of work coming in that funneled down into a container too small to accommodate it all. There was an effort to fix it with a safety net. That didn’t work, it all just came back to us anyway. We can’t say no.Now, because of law suits and tragedies we are expected to do even more in this belief that we can prevent tragedy if we just did our job right. Excuse me, if caseworkers just did their job right. Never mind that the job is impossible. We can’t say no.And you know what really gets me? Our own leadership does not stand up for us. No one stands up for us. There is a culture of shame for Child Welfare workers. The media rakes us over the coals and no one stands up for us. Lawyers make money off of law suits and no one stands up for us because it’s cheaper to settle.Caseworkers are treated like an emotionally abused child. There are unreasonable expectations of them, they never get it right, they have little to no voice and they take verbal abuse from clients every day of the week. Who’s going to stand up for them. Who is going to have a Town Hall with just caseworkers so they can tell their anecdotal stories and have everyone get up in arms about it? This agency has spent thousands of dollars over and over again for reviews. The agency pays for someone else to review the system and determine what the problems are. You know what…you can get that same information from listening to caseworkers. They know what the problems are…just ask.Let’s talk about foster parents not getting enough support and making workers available 24/7. Once again lets pile on expectations and work on caseworkers. Foster parents need child care. Absolutely, no question, they need help with childcare because they have to have a source of income other than foster care. Foster parents have to work. Kids need care. Simple as that. But let’s talk about caseworker support. In order to assure the safety of children, caseworkers have to treat every foster parent with a certain amount of suspicion. They look in the cupboards and the closets. They do unannounced home visits. Often when you try to give constructive criticism they feel blamed and defensive. Recently a worker found out that a foster parent was allowing a child to administer their own medication. This is an experienced foster parent who should have known the rules around children and medication. There were no medication logs and the meds were not locked up and the child was not monitored to assure she was taking her meds. So the worker talked to the certifier about it and the certifier talked to the foster parent. The response was the foster parent called the worker and said, “shame on you”, for going to the certifier. An example of how a caseworker can’t get it right.If you want to fix the broken system, don’t do it by placing blame on caseworkers and expect them to fix the system by working harder. Someone needs to stand up for caseworkers. Someone needs to admit that we will never be able to prevent tragedy from happening 100% of the time. Like a psychiatrist told me when I went for help because a client committed suicide and I felt responsible, “you can’t predict human behavior”.And…what is this about workers don’t believe youth. Have you ever worked with traumatized children who try to garner attention that they are so desperate for that they create chaos and tell stories? I admit it, I have had kids make disclosures that I didn’t believe, but that doesn’t mean I ignored it or went on without having it investigated. When those doing these studies and meeting with youth and foster parents hear these stories do they ever follow up to find out the whole story? I had a youth I worked with and I loved this young woman. She was awesome and rose to the occasion when we gave her leadership opportunities. And yet, when asked a question about her experience in foster care she told a story that wasn’t true. She left out the part about being on the run. I don’t think she was purposely lying I think she was drawn into the culture of DHS being bad and doing bad things and she was telling a story that fit with that culture. I had a youth tell me once that she really liked me except I work for DHS. I challenge administration to come to the field and talk to workers and get some first-hand experience of what it’s like in the field. I challenge you to take some of those anecdotal stories and find out more about the story. That’s what you do with caseworkers; you check out their story.Placement issues, big topic, big problem these days. This afternoon our emails were flooded with requests for staff to spend a shift caring for children who are being housed in our visit center. There are no placements and the placements that exist don’t want our hard to place children. Their behavior is too much for BRS programs to manage. Who is looking into why our youth are getting more and more aggressive?I have been involved with the child welfare system since birth. I was adopted, I was abused in every form of the word, I learned my times table in detention. I was at Christie School, I was at Villa St Rose, I was in foster care. What puzzles me is that when I was growing up in this system I only remember two girls who exhibited the violent behavior we see so often in children today. Why is that? I hate to say it, and you probably won’t like what I have to say, but we have gone too far in giving youth rights. Once in detention, a group of us thought it would be cool to have a “sit in” in protest of school. We didn’t get very far with that and we ended up in school. When we got into the classroom the teacher told us:“there are three reasons we have laws. We have laws to protect you from others, to protect others from you and to protect you from yourself.” I have a really bad memory, but I remember that. We don’t protect children from themselves any more. We gave them the right to be homeless on the streets. We gave them the power and children who have never had stability have a high need for control. We now know about brain development and we know that young people’s brains are not developed well enough to allow them to make good decisions, but that’s what we tell them all the time. Think about the choices you are making. They are making choices in keeping with the development of their brain. Often that means they are not good choices. I had a youth tell me recently, “I’m not going and if you try to make me I will jump out of a moving car or assault someone.” Who had the power? Certainly wasn’t me.We have a large population of children going out into the world uneducated and unprepared…because they have the power to make the choice to not go to school. Parents can’t control them and get them to school….and neither can we.When school was in session and we had youth living in the office they were not going to school. They hadn’t been going to school for a long time because they were habitual runners. We couldn’t keep them in a placement let alone school. They have the power.Laws for children were changing right at the time that I graduated from high school at Villa St Rose. A residential program with locked doors run by nuns. We went to school, not public school, but you never found any girl in bed refusing to get up and go to school. Why was that? What was different? When I heard that the law had changed and running away was no longer against the law and they couldn’t lock us up for running anymore…even at the age of 18, I knew that it was a bad change. If they had not locked me up for running away, I honestly don’t think I’d be alive today. Now days kids run and get picked up and then run again and again and again. And no one protects these kids from themselves.Parents complain all the time that their hands are tied. Youth just threaten them with calling us while the youth is threatening to hurt the parent. Our hands are tied. We criticize parents for not controlling their children, but we can’t control them either. The other night I had a police officer tell me that we should lock this tantruming youth out of the building and tell her she had not earned the right to be inside. Oh yea, can you see the headlines on that? This child would have been screaming in the parking lot, a concerned citizen would call the police and if the media found out…the caseworkers and supervisor who made the decision to lock them out would be in trouble. Our workers, who are caring for children in our visit center are getting hit by the youth. Furniture has been broken, things ripped up, the room trashed and all staff could do was try to contain it. There were no consequences, the adults had no power. The youth had the right to make the choice to act dangerously to themselves and others. Staff were supposed to be skilled enough to de-escalate these children. Treatment programs do it through restraints. We shouldn’t be restraining children, it is traumatizing, but we have no other choices.I probably sound like an old lady saying “back in the good old days”. I’m not, the old days were not good. The system was broken then too. There were many things happening to children in the system that shouldn’t happen. Children young enough to be learning their times table shouldn’t be in detention and I would never want anyone to believe that is what I am saying. “Somethings happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear….” Why are these children so out of control and what can we do about it? That’s the question that needs to be answered. I also object to teaching youth the language of the DSM V. They know their diagnosis. They have all the mental health lingo down and they know how to use it to get what they want. No one ever told me I had an illness and that’s why I misbehaved, no one gave me excuses I could use to get away with stuff or convince myself that I had no control over myself. None of the girls in detention or in St Rose were on psychotropic medication. I never heard of medication like Zoloft and trazadone etc. I saw the psychiatrist, but I didn’t get medication, no one talked to me about trauma and in those days no one ever talked about sex abuse. No, I’m not saying go back to the good old days. I am saying the pendulum has swung too far when it comes to children’s rights. They should have the right to be protected…from themselves. You cannot treat the trauma of a child who is always on the run.I’m leaving now. Leaving the office and leaving the job. I am so glad to be in a position where I can leave because the situation in the field is the worst it has ever been. I would never recommend that someone go into this line of work. I recommend that you get a master’s degree, not in order to do this job better, in order to get a different job. I recommend that current employees look for other work outside of the agency. This job is not healthy. I can’t wait to look like other people that have retired. To look rested, to look happy, and healthy. I want people to be able to see the relief of stress on my face. I would like to continue to help, to help children and families, but if I do it will be doing something that is actually helpful. I want to feel helpful, not helpless.I hope and pray that the system gets changed and staff no longer feel like nobody cares and they don’t count.Copyright 2016 KPTV-KPDX Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.


Recommended for you