Alyssa Sutton

[ EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been changed to reflect a correction. According to Andrea Cantu-Schomus, a DHS communications officer, 19 children died due to familial/caregiver neglect or abuse. None of the children were in the department's custody at the time of death.
Fariborz Pakseresht is the former Oregon Youth Authority Director

The Department for Human Services held a community forum at the Integrative Services Building in La Grande Thursday to discuss the state's foster system.

The gathering was one of several similar forums organized by DHS throughout the state. The forum held in La Grande landed on the day after Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson released an audit that criticized the care of foster children in Oregon. The purpose of the audit was to determine what changes and improvements DHS can make to promote the well-being of children in foster care.

The audit stated that Oregon’s most vulnerable children are being placed into a foster care system that has serious problems.

According to the Department of Human Services’ annual report of Oregon child abuse and neglect statistics, 19 children died due to familial/ caregiver neglect or abuse in 2016. DHS received 76,668 reports of abuse and neglect, and of all completed investigations, 7,677 were found to involve abuse or neglect and involved 11,843 victims.

The Secretary of State’s audit found that issues within the Oregon foster care system include a struggle with chronic and systemic management shortcomings and a lack of foster placements to meet the needs of at-risk youth, due in part to an inefficient recruitment program and staffing challenges.

Additionally the audit stated, “Child welfare workers are burning out and consistently leaving the system in high numbers. The supply of suitable foster homes and residential facilities is dwindling, resulting in some children spending days and weeks in hotels. Foster parents are struggling with
limited training, support and resources.

Agency management’s response to these problems has been slow, indecisive and inadequate. DHS and child welfare managers have not strategically addressed caseworker understaffing, recruitment and retention of foster homes, and a poorly implemented computer system that leaves caseworkers with inadequate information.”

Since 2011 there have been more than 11,000 children in the Oregon foster care system each year, and more than 7,500 children in foster placement on any given day. The audit noted that many of these children are victims of abuse and neglect, reporting an annual 76,668 hotline reports of child abuse or neglect.

The Oregonian reported in 2015 that DHS had failed 11 of the 14 federal requirements for foster care. Among its shortcomings was a serious shortage of foster homes, reports of abuse not being investigated, children not
receiving mental health care, and caseworkers not checking in on foster children or their guardians, whether that be their biological or foster parents.

Last week, the director of the Oregon Department of Human Services, Fariborz Pakseresht, who is the former Director of Oregon Youth Authority, responded to the audit, stating in a press release: “We are tackling the root cause of these issues, not just the symptoms. Data is a key part of our efforts, both leveraging existing data to highlight areas of improvement, and arming our caseworkers with the ability to interpret it. We are improving our systems and the management of those systems. As we resound to issues articulated in the audit, we are also building the foundation to deliver sustained outcomes and results according to our vision of safety, independence and health for all Oregonians.”

Community forums such as the one in La Grande last week are one way DHS is gathering the data it needs. From these community discussions, DHS receives feedback from foster parents, caseworkers, the legal community and current foster children.

Pakseresht, who was hired in September 2017, told the La Grande community that he didn’t hesitate when the governor asked him to assist the department.

“At some point in our lives, we have to figure out what our life purpose is,” he said. “Mine is service. The department is struggling, and I felt I could make a difference.”

Pakseresht asked Marilyn Jones, the former DHS district manager in Baker City, to work in Salem shortly after he was hired.

“She cares,” he said. “She cares and she gets things done.”

Jones was hired as the state’s director of Child Welfare on Oct. 9, 2017. The director before her had resigned after serving less than seven months on the job. Pakseresht is the third person to step into the department’s director’s shoes since the appointment of Gov. Kate Brown.

The turnover rate in the department isn’t only at the director level. In 2016, Oregon saw a 23 percent turnover rate of caseworkers, almost double the turnover rate in Idaho. The good news is that this was 7 percent less than in 2015.

“We’re working on what type of culture we can create,” Pakseresht said. “We want safety for children, safety for foster parents and safety for caseworkers so we can begin to create a safe environment.”

He explained that the next step for DHS is for the administration to create a healthy and healing

“Once we have that accountability, then we can work on engagement,” he said. “But we need your help. We need the community’s help.”

The community members who attended the forum were given topics regarding the foster care system to discuss. They were also given index notes to write their thoughts down and were told that all notes would remain anonymous and would contribute to a report that will be released to the public most likely in April.