Kids Can’t Wait

By Shirley Iverson

Governor Ted Kulongoski’s March 2008 State of the State address included several promises to Oregon’s children. He promised to expand health care coverage for children from 6 months to 12 months and to increase the Oregon Health Plan caseload by 20,000 children by the end of this year. He also promised to include in his 2009 budget package an increased cigarette tax for children’s health care, despite the fact that his last attempt to do this (Measure 50) was soundly defeated at the polls last November. His rallying cry is “Kids can’t wait,” but a close look at Department of Human Services (DHS) Child Welfare program uncovers the troubling fact that his administration certainly has allowed many children to wait.

Governor Kulongoski was elected in 2002, the same year a federal government published review gave Oregon’s Child Welfare system failing grades for the first time. It was also the year Ward Weaver murdered two young girls in Oregon City, both of whom were known to the Child Welfare system. This tragic case should have highlighted the clear failure to communicate allegations of abuse across agencies and the failure of Child Welfare to follow up in a timely manner to reports of child abuse in these families. Both issues are noted in the federal review as systemic problems. The governor began his administration with a challenge to improve the Child Welfare system. Many believed the system could not get worse.

Fast forward to 2008, and we see six years of allowing children to wait as the problems in DHS Child Welfare continue. While the governor stated his personal interest in fixing the Child Welfare program, he seems to have focused instead on expanding children’s health coverage, while issues of abuse rage unchecked.

The 2008 federal review of the Child Welfare program highlighted failure in 11 out of 14 performance measures and failure in all areas of client performance measures. This includes failure in the following areas: children are not first and foremost protected from abuse and neglect; children are not safely maintained in their homes when possible; and children do not have permanency and stability in their living situation.

Oregon’s failures include the reoccurrence of maltreatment within 6 months and maltreatment of children in foster care. Some of this low performance was attributed in part to the lack of frequent and meaningful contact between DHS staff and children, parents or foster parents. Monthly quality contact with children occurred in only 55% of cases reviewed, and only 39% of the parents in reviewed cases had contact with their caseworkers.

The abuse of children is not a popular topic, nor is the failure to respond in a timely manner to allegations of abuse. Because what happens in the Child Welfare program is far from transparent to the public, few Oregonians know about DHS’s failure to support families when children are returned to their homes, or the failure of caseworkers to see children and foster parents face-to-face on a monthly basis. Most of us are also unaware of DHS’s failure to share the results of the Critical Incident Team Reports with the public. (Critical Incident Team Reports are filed following the death of any child known to the Child Welfare system.)

All of the failures mentioned above, and documented in two federal reviews, should command the governor’s personal attention. In a world where resources are limited, and tough choices must be made, focusing state attention on keeping children safe should come before insuring them. Children in Oregon need more than immunizations and tobacco-funded health insurance to be healthy and safe. They need a governor and an administration that will make child safety a top priority.

Children can’t wait, but too many have waited for six years for the attention they need. The 2008 federal review sets out a clear roadmap to the severe challenges in our child welfare program, and the DHS-commissioned Child Welfare Staffing Study provides a blueprint for closing gaps in service.

Governor, please keep your commitment to personally fix the Child Welfare program. Oregon Health Plan expansion can wait, but abused and at-risk kids cannot.

Next Monday… Suffer the Little Children: How lack of transparency in a state agency endangers children

Shirley Iverson is a consultant for the Government Transparency Project at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market think tank. From 1988 to 2005, Ms. Iverson held several high-level leadership positions within the Oregon Department of Human Services.