It has become all too common that each new audit or report assessing a Child Welfare system simply reiterates the same findings and recommendations that were already published in previous years. Oregon Public Broadcasting's series, which was sparked by an audit into the state's system published in January, underscores this scenario and highlights several challenges that continue to plague Child Welfare workers across the country.
Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” recently published several interviews with caseworkers and leadership from Oregon’s Office of Child Welfare. The 3-part series, which was sparked by an audit into Oregon’s Child Welfare system that was published in January, has been great for reflection.
“How a Landmark Audit Could Change Oregon’s Child Welfare Department” summarizes the situation:
“Despite years of earlier reports, audits and recommendations, the system is still rife with problems. The list includes: bad morale and high turnover rates among caseworkers, a shortage of foster parents with no plan to increase the number, no centralized system of reporting for child abuse, and no successful follow-through on many crucial recommendations from earlier audits.”
Unfortunately, this scenario has become all too familiar for Child Welfare programs throughout the country: each new audit reiterates the same findings and recommendations that have already been published.
At some point, I’m hoping to see one of these reports simply state, “Do what every other report has recommended for the past 15-20 years.” In fact, I often wonder what type of prevention efforts (and even results!) could already be in place if the time and resources spent conducting the same research and publishing the same recommendations were instead used to provide what those on the frontlines have been asking for throughout their careers. More importantly, how many lives would’ve been set upon a different path?
It is absolutely great for us to “Think Out Loud;” however, I hope we are also willing to “Listen with Action.”
Let’s take a look at the key takeaways discussed in another article, “Oregon Child Welfare Workers Say They Can't Keep Up, Can't Do Prevention Work.”
- Shortage of placements. The opioid epidemic, which the Child Welfare system saw coming a long time ago, features younger children with greater needs. At the same time, prescription drugs abuse is permeating further into the extended family. Simply relying on a known grandparent no longer suffices. Workers need time and tools to find the connections and potential supports they don’t already know exist.
- Certification of relatives. Imagine you had been caring for a relative for the past six months. However, a five-minute court hearing changes the legal version of a custodial relationship. Suddenly, you are required to go through weeks of training and licensing efforts to do exactly what you had been doing. Even more complicating, you have to pray this is not across state lines. Not only is this frustrating for the child and caretaker, but the worker as well: the more time they have to spend certifying relatives, the less time they can work on recruitment and retention of non-relative foster parents.
- Emphasizing preventative work. As a Child Welfare community, we have to do better. Today’s world is a different place. Think different. Act different. Take a chance on doing the most good. Studies and audits that only point to the same challenges fall short of solutions. Do what matters to that kiddo in front of you and allow the outcomes to speak for themselves.
- Technology for Child Welfare is outdated. It’s time for states and local agencies to dream big and vet the very latest in technology to meet the needs of today’s social workers. Remember: data created at each and every interaction at the local level is YOUR data. What do you want to do with it? Where do you want to go with it?
- Lack of time contributes to turnover. This is not news—turnover has been around as long as Child Welfare. Instead of uncovering this same “finding” over and over again, we should be asking, “What technologies and methodologies actually contribute to understanding and addressing this?”
- More bodies, same problems. Child Welfare will continue to have turnover as long as a lack of investment in prevention efforts, outdated technology, and excessive paperwork continue to show up in reports, audits and/or findings. Simply adding staff doesn’t solve the problem. Until the Child Welfare service delivery environment evolves and solves these challenges, you can bet that we’ll continue to read the same recommendations and “insights” in 2019 and beyond.
Former Oregon Child Welfare Director Lena Alhusseini sums up the root cause of these challenges:
"I read somewhere 'child welfare is not brain surgery; it’s actually more difficult.' Because there’s so many moving parts, so we can’t be so black and white about it. You really have to look at the risk assessment.
What your actions do. How you’re going to affect the life of the child. Look short-term, look long-term. Can you help that family? Help empower the family?
Yes, the child is the center of gravity. But it’s not black and white. The gravity has lots of moving points. All the unintended consequences can sometimes take us to the wrong direction, instead of helping the child."