Gov. Kate Brown said she hopes $14.5 million approved by Oregon lawmakers for new recruits at the state child welfare agency will start to reverse high caseloads and staff turnover rates within the next three to six months.
"I think that the recent funding will significantly make a difference on those two pieces immediately," Brown said in an interview Monday evening. "It's going to take some time obviously to hire (new workers)."
The state Department of Human Services child welfare program has come under sharp criticism after an Oregon Secretary of State audit in January showed under-staffing and high staff turnover rates are putting foster children in danger.
The audit, which joined a flood of other reports criticizing the agency, showed child welfare staff members are sometimes saddled with almost quadruple the recommended number of cases.
Only about 2,190 full-time equivalent staff members work in the child welfare program, serving approximately 7,600 children a day, according to the audit. The audit said the program needs 769 new employees to meet current staffing needs.
State lawmakers during the short session approved Brown's $14.5 million request to hire 185 staff members, including 75 caseworkers, 25 office support staff members, 75 social workers and 10 managers.
DHS Director Fariborz Pakseresht told the Statesman Journal agency officials are "very grateful" for the allocation, but the way out of the agency's predicament "is a combination of reducing the size of the system and then infusion of some resources."
"And where these two efforts meet, we can actually right-size the system," he said.
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Pakseresht said the number of children in Oregon's foster care system is at least 1 1/2 times larger than the national average — and one of the first orders of business is to figure out why.
As a result of the $14.5 million allocation, Brown said, "For the first time I think in a long time, caseworkers have hope that they're going to be able to address the needs of the children on their caseload."
Pakseresht said the money is going toward reducing caseloads so burning-out staff members have added time both to care for themselves and the families on their caseloads.
In coming months, "we should begin to see a positive trend in being able to retain caseworkers," he said.
Brown and Pakseresht spoke together with the Statesman Journal by phone following a closed-door meeting on child welfare with DHS officials, members of the state judicial branch and a bi-partisan group of lawmakers at Mahonia Hall, the governor's official Salem residence.
A main thrust of the meeting was to address the root causes behind why children enter the foster care system, such as mental health issues, substance abuse and a lack of affordable housing, she said.
"These are the combination of issues that bring children into the foster care system," Brown said.
She said her sense from attendees was they wanted to know how to stop families from entering the foster care system "in the first place" and how to provide "wraparound services" to stanch that flow.
Brown said that for her, realistic success looks like children in the foster care system being safe and getting appropriate levels of support and services; caseworkers having appropriate workloads; and foster care placements meeting children's needs.
"We want to be supporting our families and keeping them together when it's safe to do that," she said. That means making sure there's a relief nursery or parent training available in local communities to support families.
Brown convened her first child welfare meeting at Mahonia Hall last April, during the 2017 session.
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