The Oregon foster care system has some serious issues. That isn’t news. But initiatives in the Oregon Legislature and within the Oregon Department of Human Services are attempting to address the problems that have plagued the system for decades.
By CASEY CHAFFIN
In the state legislature, the past several years have ushered in several reform efforts, often spearheaded by youth working with the Oregon Foster Youth Connection advocacy group. The newest statewide reform was passage of the Foster Sibling Bill of Rights in 2017. At the national level, the Family First Act, passed in February, is now being worked into state priorities.
Senator Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis) has made child welfare reform a centerpiece of her legislative career and takes the importance of foster youth voices to heart. “Hearing directly from the youth makes so much more sense and has a greater impact than hearing from a professor,” she said. “That lived experience of those kids, that’s the real thing. It’s not anecdotal, it’s real, those kids are speaking truth.”
In her role as a child-welfare oriented legislator acting in a moment dubbed a “crisis” for foster care by the Oregon Secretary of State, Gelser has co-sponsored and chaired several new initiatives in foster care reform.
Last year, the Foster Sibling Bill of Rights was signed into law. The legislation mandates the maintenance of sibling bonds after sibling groups enter care and was proposed by and lobbied for by the Oregon Foster Youth Connection. Gelser co-sponsored the bill.
The Sibling Bill of Rights is still in the process of being implemented statewide, but the goal of that legislation is to put greater emphasis on keeping siblings who enter into care together if at all possible, and if a single placement isn’t possible, then to require that foster parents provide avenues for youth to visit and communicate with their siblings living elsewhere.
When asked about how implementation of the law is progressing, Gelser said there is still work to be done to educate those who work in DHS and foster families about the necessity of maintaining sibling connections, both for the youths’ sake and for the sake of compliance with the law.
“You have it, it’s out there, but whether kids know it exists and can reference it is another thing altogether,” she said. “And we have a lot of training around making this a key priority.”
It’s also important to note, Gelser said, that the Sibling Bill of Rights applies not just to foster families, but also to adoptive parents. Gelser is a mother of four children, two of whom are adoptees. She said understanding the importance of biological family is important even once the adoption papers are signed.
“You can have these perfectly loving, nurturing, happy adoptive families but that doesn’t take away the questions you have about your roots and where you come from,” Gelser said. “I don’t think a child or an adult can ever have too many people in their lives to love them. We need to do a better job of really educating adoptive parents about that, especially kids that are being adopted out of foster care.”
Both of her adoptive children have contact with their biological families. One of her daughters, who was brought into the Gelser household under an open adoption, has had contact with her birth family throughout her life. Her other adopted daughter had a closed adoption, but just connected with her birth father through the Oregon Adoption Search and Registry.
“I want my kids to be happy and whole and feel solid and grounded in who they are and I don’t think there’s anything threatening at all about other people who care about and love my kids, and that my kids care about and love,” Gelser said. “Love grows.”
Gelser is also involved with the newest national foster-care reform legislation, the Family First Act, as chair of the Family First Implementation and Policy Work Group at the State Capitol. This act was signed into national law in February of this year, and will go into full effect in October 2019. This law reallocates federal funds toward preventative services for parents, and away from group foster care, which often produces unsuccessful outcomes for foster youth.
The impetus of this law is that state agencies and childcare providers receive federal funding to take care of foster youth. Now that the law has been handed down from the federal level, state legislators need to figure out how to comply with it in their states.
“Right now, that [federal] money can only be spent on foster care maintenance, but now we’re going to be able to use that money for prevention services, for parent coaching, for therapy, for substance abuse treatment—all the kinds of things that will help families avoid abuse and neglect and hopefully safely reduce the need for foster care,” Gelser said.
The shift toward preventative services seeks to address the increasing number of youth entering foster care, which is a factor in the current “crisis.” If the state can do a better job of supporting families before they reach their own crisis point, then the state will not have to be the deciding factor in a young person’s future success.
“That’s what I see my primary focus as a legislator and a community member is strengthening, modernizing, and improving our child welfare system and empowering youth to be the ones that lead that change,” Gelser said. “The work is not done, I’d say it’s barely started, but I’m excited about where we’re going. It’s one of the most important things that we can do.”
In addition to changing laws and policy, Gelser emphasizes the importance of community in supporting people in general, even if their children aren’t in foster care.
“Parenting is hard. Families and relationships are hard. The more that we can all take responsibility for each other, when we see someone struggling in the store, a neighbor struggling down the street, how can we offer to help?” Gelser said. “A lot of this is about supporting people to be successful.”
By CASEY CHAFFIN
The Oregon Department of Human Services, under pressure from a state audit and from years of unpleasant news coverage, is implementing major reform projects to better serve young people in Oregon foster care.
The Secretary of State’s audit resulted in 24 recommendations to improve Oregon’s child welfare and foster care system. Subsequently, Fariboz Pakseresht, the director of DHS, released a response to the audit, detailing plans to address all 24 recommendations. In the opening letter to the response, Pakseresht writes, “We need to tackle the root causes of these issues, not just the symptoms. That means focusing on recruiting and retaining foster parents and caseworkers, leveraging data and analytics in our strategic planning, and continuing our efforts to better partner with communities and support our existing foster parents.”
Many of the 24 recommendations involve collecting better data about those who function in the foster care system—about the youth in care, about foster parents, about caseworkers, and when and why they burn out of their jobs.
Paul Bellatty, Director of the Office of Reporting, Research, Analytics, and Implementation, is in charge of overseeing many of the data-collection efforts. The five research projects currently in progress are: utilizing predictive analytics to be more discerning about when to remove a child from their biological home; understanding the makeup of youth in the foster care system to provide better services to those youth; where caseworkers’ work can be streamlined; and recruitment and retention of both caseworkers and foster parents.
The first project uses predictive analytics to better understand when a child should be taken from their biological home after a report comes into the child welfare system. Pairing employee judgement calls with data about how other cases similar to the one on the line have panned out will allow DHS to figure out which youth should be pulled from their homes.
The Oregon foster care system is “about one and a half times [larger than] what you’d see in other states,” Bellatty said. “So, it’s about downsizing as much as possible without putting kids at risk.”
The predictive analytics should help DHS employees prioritize which youth are at risk when a child welfare case is reported, allowing DHS employees to focus on youth who are actually in need of state resources.
The second project, which is currently in the process of reviewing 2500 child welfare cases statewide to better understand what types of youth who enter the foster care system and which types of foster care are in most need of state attention. The goal of that project is to understand what type of care is best for the types of young people in care. This project also analyzes the outcomes of different child welfare services to see which programs suit which type of family best, so families can be better paired with DHS programs.
The third and fourth projects seek to ease the burden on caseworkers. The projects seek to collect data to understand where caseworkers’ time isn’t being utilized as effectively as it could, find the “optimum caseload” size for caseworkers, and to discover the factors that cause caseworkers to quit their jobs. To address the latter concern, DHS is researching whether the main problem is recruitment or retention: are the wrong people being recruited as caseworkers, or is there not enough support to retain good caseworkers? Or is it a combination of both? To answer to these questions, DHS will send out regular surveys to new and continuing caseworkers to find out what caseworkers need on the job and why those who choose to quit make that decision. That way, DHS can lessen turnover and create a better environment for caseworkers.
The fifth project is about foster parent recruitment and retention. This project seeks to understand foster parent burnout, provide better training and services to foster parents to keep them in the system, and to recruit foster families that can better serve the needs of youth in the system. To learn more about DHS’s foster parent retention and recruitment efforts, see sidebar.
All of these research projects are in progress, and all have concrete implementation goals to achieve once the research and data collection period ends. The goal isn’t just to horde data; the goal is to make the lives of children in the system better.
“We’re going to do a better job of serving [foster youth]. Child safety is what it’s all about,” Bellatty said.