SALEM — While many lawmakers say they’re heartened by recent leadership changes at the Department of Human Services, there are some differing opinions about how the Legislature can remedy the myriad problems in the state foster care system.
State auditors said Jan. 31 that DHS has failed to make progress on chronic problems in the Child Welfare program, including lack of available foster homes and high caseworker turnover.
The issues in the foster care program were raised on Monday, the first day of the short legislative session, after state Rep. Knute Buehler, a Bend Republican who is also a candidate for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, called for $50 million in additional funding to implement the audit’s two-dozen recommendations.
“As leaders and citizens we owe these kids, families and caseworkers so much more than what they’re getting right now,” Buehler told reporters Monday, Feb. 5.
However, other lawmakers say that the foster care audit identified longstanding problems at DHS, and that while more money could help, solving those problems also requires systemic changes at DHS that will take time as well as oversight from the Legislature.
For example, the audit found that the agency employs 769 fewer caseworkers than are needed to meet demand. But state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, said Feb. 5 that making an effective change means hiring the right people and training them well, both steps that take time.
And while lawmakers could move money around in the budget, Gelser said that putting more money into Child Welfare could mean cuts for other important programs.
Further, she says that reforming the state’s tax system could, as other tax reform advocates have argued, help pay for the wide variety of state government services that Oregonians want, from public safety, to child welfare, to schools, to roads.
“It all comes back to how much money’s in the bank to pay for these things,” Gelser said, noting that recent legislative efforts to reform the state’s tax system to stabilize revenue moved forward in the last session, but still disintegrated. “. . . So now, I look to the people that will want to capitalize on some of these audits to come forward with us, and hold hands with us, to get the tax reform that we need to be able to pay for the services that Oregonians expect and need.”
Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, was skeptical of Buehler’s idea to infuse DHS with $50 million in funding from an increased cigarette tax. Increasing the cigarette tax was unlikely to get political support, she said, and added that the problems at the agency required higher-level changes to the system or agency “infrastructure.”
“We could throw, you know, another $100 million at it tomorrow, and it wouldn’t fix the problem overnight, by any means,” Steiner Hayward said. “So it’s a multifaceted problem . . . that’s been a long time in the making, but I think the path toward solving it, at least with the resources we currently have available, is much clearer than it’s ever been.”
In the 2017 session, when lawmakers hammered out the two-year budget for the fiscal biennium that ends in June 2019, the budget included $30 million more for the Child Welfare program than initially planned, Steiner Hayward said.
Lawmakers used that money to bring back a senior staff position to support caseworkers and upped payments to foster parents, among other things.
Senate Republican Leader Jackie Winters, R-Salem, said in an interview last week that the Legislature should also look at how to prevent kids from going into foster care where possible.
Winters pointed to the state’s relief nursery program as an example — more than 30 community-based relief nurseries in Oregon provide therapy and other supports to parents in need. About 11,000 Oregon kids enter foster care annually.
Many lawmakers have said they are confident in new leadership at the agency. Fariborz Pakseresht, the former Oregon Youth Authority director, has led the agency since September, and Marilyn Jones has been at the helm of the Child Welfare program since October.
“I think we need to give (Pakseresht) time to right-side the agency,” Winters told the EO/Pamplin Capital Bureau last week.
Auditors said that the agency would benefit from a culture change, saying in their report that the agency needed a “culture of transparency, responsibility, respectful communication, and professionalism.”
Pakseresht has echoed the desire at the Legislature to dive deeper on the problems. “We need to tackle the root cause of these issues, not just the symptoms,” Pakseresht wrote in a response to the Jan. 31 audit.