SALEM, Ore. -- Leaders of Oregon's child welfare system have continually failed to fix systemic problems after paying $39 million in legal settlements, according to a new audit by the Oregon Secretary of State's Office.

At the same time, child welfare employees have worked in a culture of bullying and intimidation, facing verbal abuse from Department of Human Services leaders, state auditors said in the report released Wednesday.

Some DHS staff members also were told not to talk with Secretary of State officials for the audit, according to the audit report.

"This sounds like a really poisonous atmosphere to work in," said Jim Moore, director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

"It sounds like an agency that is hunkering down and stonewalling," Moore said. Moreover, it's requiring employees to do the same, he said.

Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson spoke about the findings of the audit during a live press conference Wednesday morning.

Click here to watch the press conference.

Secretary of State auditors also found:

  • DHS has spent $39 million on legal payouts since 2006 because the agency couldn't "consistently keep children in their care safe from abuse and neglect."
  • Agency leaders haven't reversed high staff turnover and caseload rates that put children in danger.
  • Agency managers have not addressed recruitment and retention of high-quality foster parents.

"To begin reversing the growing foster care crisis, we concluded DHS must first address its management and organizational cultural deficiencies," the auditors said.

Read the audit here

DHS agreed with the two dozen recommendations made in the report.

“When I started in my role as DHS director in September, the governor made it clear to me that she expects every child in foster care to be safe," DHS Director Fariborz Pakseresht said in a statement.

Read the DHS response to the audit here

"As part of that, she has directed us to focus on recruiting and retaining foster parents and caseworkers and to create a better culture of support for them," he said. "She expects results and outcomes and we will be reporting to her on those monthly."

Slow to respond

Agency leaders' responses to more than a decade of scrutiny and crisis has been slow, indecisive and inadequate, auditors said. Efforts to reform the system have fallen flat because of poor planning, poor execution and eventual abandonment.

An example cited in the report was a 2016 mandate to complete more child abuse and neglect investigations in a timely manner. The Legislature was told the agency had made improvements completing the investigations, but the auditors found "the push to complete investigations lasted about three months, after which the agency's complete rate returned to previous levels."

"Field staff reported the use of questionable management tactics to push staff to complete more investigations, including threatening to take away scheduled leave time or put staff on administrative leave."

DHS oversees about 7,800 children in foster care.

The Secretary of State's Office called for major reforms within the agency, saying DHS should set caps on how many cases staff members can take on and "cultivate a culture of transparency, responsibility, respectful communication and professionalism."

"As a foster parent myself who adopted one of my daughters out of the system, I find the audit report results especially infuriating," Secretary of State Dennis Richardson said in a press release.

"I believe how we treat our children reflects our heart and priorities as a state — and this report reveals that genuine introspection as a state is long overdue," Richardson said.

Pakseresht said in a letter provided with the audit that child welfare director Marilyn Jones is poised to create new "Child Welfare leadership teams" that "will understand the need for transparency, strong and open communication, and offering high levels of support while asking for high levels of accountability."

The agency agreed to work with the Legislature to add more staff members to address high caseloads, Pakseresht said in the letter.

Moore said the audit will likely shift top state lawmakers' focus back to the state child welfare system, even during the short February session. Lawmakers will want to address the problems and hear from agency leaders, he said.

'Bullying, intimidation' in child welfare

Child welfare workers told auditors about multiple instances "of bullying, intimidation (sic) of caseworkers by senior staff, and management efforts to suppress information."

State auditors described a culture within DHS that has seen workers at the agency's central office in Salem face "bullying in meetings, including being shouted at and verbally abused."

"Some told us that they had been instructed not to talk to the state audit team," auditors said.

One manager told auditors they were warned they would lose their job if they testified before state lawmakers about a program that was failing.

Another worker was directed by management to tell a lawmaker that information they asked for was not available, "when it was," auditors said.

"A third manager told us that they and their team were treated 'as saboteurs' for sharing information about a child safety review with management and that the report was essentially dismissed and ignored," auditors said.

High caseloads still a problem

In Salem, child protective services workers are assigned 21 investigations monthly, more than triple the number of investigations they should be working on, based on an agency workload model, auditors said. They should have about seven investigations each.

In Prineville, permanency workers reported having to work up to 45 cases when staff levels were low. That's almost quadruple a recommended 11.5-cases-per-person workload, auditors said. Roseburg permanency workers said they had about 20 cases each.

Permanency workers develop a plan for foster children to move to a permanent living situation, whether that's adoption, living with a guardianship or reunifying with their birth family, according to DHS spokespeople.

"Caseworkers and other field staff told us repeatedly that the demands placed upon them were unrealistic," auditors said.

In addition, DHS managers in Salem don't accurately keep tabs on staff caseloads, auditors said. "This lack of oversight contributes to high caseloads that are not reflected in the available data, and inequitable staffing levels between counties and districts."

To conduct the review, auditors interviewed about 240 people, from agency leaders to staff members in the field. Auditors also sent out a 60-item questionnaire to district managers throughout Oregon.

Here is a fact sheet from DHS about all the ways people can help

Reach Statesman Journal reporter Jonathan Bach by phone at 503-399-6714 or by email at jbach@statesmanjournal.com.