Monday, July 20, 2020

Oregon’s new, improved child welfare audit

This time, they noticed the elephant in the room.
Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno gets it ...
Call it the new, improved audit.  Two years after issuing an audit that only fueled the take-the-child-and-run mentality in Oregon child welfare, the office of the Secretary of State (led by a new Secretary of State, Bev Clarno) tried again, and came much closer to getting it right.

Most important, the new audit devotes a whole section to the elephant in the room: Oregon’s extreme outlier status when it comes to taking away children – and it notes the research showing how harmful this is to those children.  I have a commentary about the new audit in the Salem Statesman Journal.
Think of this as a supplement, since there are a few points for which there was not room in the column:

The demise of “differential response”

● Workers lamented supposedly not being able to provide help unless there is “a safety threat.” That’s not quite correct. Workers themselves decide if there is a safety threat; the bigger problem, noted throughout the audit, is the fact that the services don’t exist or they’re the wrong kind of services, as is discussed below.

But it is true that Oregon briefly had a better way to reach families before a crisis – a way that more than two dozen studies have found to be safe and effective: Differential response (DR). To its credit, the audit takes note of the fact that Oregon once had this option – and notes its demise.  What it does not say is that DR was the victim of a political hit job led by Oregon media’s Godsource for all things child welfare, State Sen. Sara Gelser.

Gelser was the major force behind legislation that killed Oregon’s “differential response” initiative. She moved ahead either without waiting for or simply ignoring the final results of a comprehensive independent evaluation. (The evaluation is dated June, 2017, her bill killing DR passed in early July of that year.) According to that evaluation:

[O]ur analyses find no evidence that DR undermines the safety of children in Oregon. [Emphasis in original.] 
The evaluation found that families receiving a differential response intervention were significantly less likely to have another substantiated report of child abuse than a matched comparison group of families who got a traditional Oregon child protective services investigation.

Gelser’s media free ride has included constant demands that everyone else be held accountable. When will Sen. Gelser be held accountable for all she’s done to make Oregon’s bad child welfare system even worse?

Racial bias

● The audit takes the first steps toward examining the racial bias that permeates child welfare in a state where Black children are in foster care at double their rate in the general population, and Native American children are in foster care at five times their rate in the general population.

In poor communities and communities of color, workers for agencies such as the Oregon Department of Human Services are not seen as friendly helpers – they are seen for what they are, a police force; a force that actually has more power than the police who wear blue uniforms.  With Portland now an epicenter of #BlackLivesMatter protests, this seems like a good time to finally take a close look at Oregon’s child abuse police, too.

...Oregon State Sen. Sara Gelser does not.
It’s also a good time to recall that, though nationwide more than half of all Black children will  be forced to endure a child abuse investigation before they turn 18 – almost always needlessly – Sen. Gelser first came to prominence by claiming, wrongly, that Oregon wasn’t investigating enough families.

Now Gelser is crusading against the Sequel chain of Residential McTreatment Centers.  She is absolutely right about the horrors exposed at Sequel facilities. But states ship kids to places like this because they claim they don’t have enough foster homes. In most cases, definitely including Oregon, the “shortage” of foster homes is artificial – caused by the state taking away too many children in the first place.

Yes, like most people involved with child welfare, Sen. Gelser has good intentions. But by demanding even more needless investigations into overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite families, fueling hype and hysteria about child abuse, and killing off differential response, Gelser shares responsibility for creating conditions that get children sent to Sequel facilities in the first place.

The right kind of help

● It’s not just a matter of services, it’s a matter of the right kind of services.  On page 12, the audit gives three case examples of times DHS did manage to provide intensive services to families. Twice the services were successful, the third time they were not.  

In the case where the services didn’t work there was a heavy emphasis on “help” designed primarily to make the helpers feel good – the ubiquitous “mentoring” and “mental health services.” The success stories revealed an emphasis on concrete help – in particular health insurance and cash, and drug treatment where parent and child could stay together.  In these cases the cost of the help also was significantly less.

Spend smarter

● Speaking of cost, take it from a tax and spend liberal – DHS does not need more money, it needs to spend smarter. The audit has some eye-popping figures concerning how much more DHS has been spending in recent years – and most of the money is state funds, which means it could have been spent on smart alternatives to foster care.  There is no indication that’s what happened. So the additional spending didn’t change the dismal results.

Even before these big increases, in 2016 (the most recent year for which comparative data are available) Oregon spent proportionately on child welfare at one of the highest rates in America.

So Oregon could do a lot simply by spending smarter.  Yet now that the federal government is giving states the chance to do this – albeit in only a very limited way – via the so-called Family First Act, DHS apparently lacks either the courage or the competence to do much with it.  What may be the single most useful program Family First can fund is the Homebuilders Intensive Family Preservation Services program. But the audit makes a point of noting that this program doesn’t exist in Oregon. The audit also reports (p.6) that DHS plans to make only “limited changes initially…”

            Oregon’s children need so much more.