Oregon Child Welfare Workers Say They Can't Keep Up, Can't Do Prevention Work

Mar 13, 2018
Originally published on May 16, 2018 2:08 pm

The  by the Oregon Secretary of State's office into Oregon’s Child Welfare system provided painful documentation of how the department is failing many of the state's most vulnerable children. The report, released in late January, found a lack of centralized reporting for child abuse, a severe shortage of foster parents, bad morale and terrible turnover rates among caseworkers.

Caseworkers Rosanne Scott and Kelly Paluso recently sat down with "Think Out Loud" host Dave Miller. They told him the agency does not provide them with the resources they need to do prevention work or recruit and adequately support foster parents. Scott has been with DHS for 17 years, Paluso for 11. They say they do not disagree with any of the audit's findings.

Here are six key takeaways from the conversation:

1. The shortage of placements for kids who have been removed from their homes has gotten worse in the last few years.

Rosanne Scott: "17 years ago, this was something that pretty much would never happen to you and now it's something that could happen at any time."

Kelly Paluso: "Realistically, it's what Oregonians know and have known for a while, which is that unfortunately, we don't have enough placements. So that means sometimes having to stay in hotels with kids because we don't have a placement for them. Or kids having to move way more than they should have to.

"I mean, I feel like when I started there was more. A kid came into care, we were able to find a placement, they stayed in that placement until their next permanent plan happened. Now it feels more like, a kid comes into care, we try really hard to get them into a stable placement. But that doesn't always happen. Maybe they have to move a couple of times, maybe they have to be hoteled for a couple nights until we can find something."

2. The shortage of foster parents occurred because of the unintended consequences of an emphasis on emergency certification for relatives.

Scott: "Years and years ago, we started focusing on relatives, which I think it's something we had neglected a little bit in the past ... So we started focusing a lot on certifying relatives, which has been really great for the kids that that works out for. And we never increased our pool of certification workers who do that type of job, and I think we have had less time as time goes on to work on recruitment and retention of non-relative foster parents. And a lot of our relative foster parents don't go on to take other non-related kids."

3. Paluso and Scott say they would love to do prevention, but the current system is not set up to provide the services to keep children safe in their familial home.

Paluso: "We don't enjoy removing kids from their homes. This isn't something that we want to do. We recognize that it's necessary but it's also a really difficult process. There's a balance between — the court wants you to do a certain level of services.

"You may have some ideas as a caseworker about what you want to be able to do. There's also restrictions on maybe what's available or what's affordable ... or all of those things. So it's just — it's a puzzle, every day. It's putting together puzzle pieces and trying to do the best you can for the families that you have."

Scott: "We love prevention. I would love it if we could get involved with families, help build them up and give them the resources they need to not have to get involved with us, on an involuntary basis. And I think we do what we can with prevention. But because of our severe and chronic under-staffing, we don't have the ability to work with a family in any meaningful way unless they are coming in our door through a pretty serious concern." 

4. The computer software system caseworkers have to use is awful.

Paluso: "We joke in the office a lot that it's is a clicking system. So it's one where to do one single task may require 10 clicks. Just to enter a case note requires so many steps. It's laborious. It's a really difficult system to work with. And I'm quite computer savvy, and still, often struggle with figuring out how to do what in that system.

"That doesn't even count all of the things that it just doesn't do ... It talks in the audit about how we have to do these monthly face-to-face contacts. There's no way to track in this system (that) 'Hey, you're due for a face-to-face contact.' So it does talk in the audit about how some people will do Post-it notes. We both happen to track in our paper calendars."

5. Long hours, the possibility of being called anytime of day —including weekends — and lack of time to keep up with the caseload contribute to low morale and high turnover.

Scott: "I have personally cried at work. Not recently. But I think the hard part is that kind of the things that I've described ... It's tiring, it's very fast-paced work, and just when things get really intense, and sort of a normal person might need a break, is when you have to just be completely on-game and responsive and kind of working around the clock sometimes to make sure things get done. So it's a very high-stress job." 

6. Approximately $15 million was allocated in the last legislative session to DHS to hire more caseworkers and other staff at the child welfare department. Scott and Paluso say that is important but a small part of what's needed.

Scott: " is 25 percent of what the audit recommends, but it's a fantastic step in the right direction." 

Paluso: "And it's an understaffing issue, but it's also an investment in resources. It's an investment in us as workers being able to refer to the services needed.

"There is a lot of prevention work available, especially for those front-end workers, who are like, you know what, this isn't quite a safety threat, right? This isn't enough to remove a kid. But there are some concerns, and they're headed down that path. So instead of just closing it and saying, 'Bye, good luck, hope I don't see you again,' we could actually be doing some referrals for services right then, and get some folks in and helping out and doing what's needed to prevent that from happening.

"But we don't have the funds for those kinds of resources. We barely have enough funds for the resources for the families that we are working with."

Scott: "One of the things that Kelly and I struggle with and fieldworkers struggle with is ... the people who have control over budgets and position allocations and system upgrades are really removed from the field. So they don't necessarily understand the true need."


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