Audit Release – Foster Care in Oregon: Chronic management failures and high caseloads jeopardize the safety of some of the state’s most vulnerable children

Report Highlights


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

Background

Since 2011, there have been over 11,000 children in the Oregon foster care system each year. These children are vulnerable and are often the victims of child abuse and neglect.

Audit Purpose

The purpose of the audit was to determine what changes and improvements DHS can make to better promote the wellbeing of children in foster care and ensure they are better protected and cared for.

Key Findings

  1. DHS and Child Welfare struggle with chronic and systemic management shortcomings that have a detrimental effect on the agency’s ability to protect child safety. Management has failed to address a work culture of blame and distrust, plan adequately for costly initiatives, address the root causes of systemic issues, use data to inform key decisions, and promote lasting program improvements. As a result, the child welfare system, which includes the foster care program, is disorganized, inconsistent, and high risk for the children it serves.
  2. DHS does not have enough foster placements to meet the needs of at-risk children, due in part to a lack of a robust foster parent recruitment program. The agency struggles to retain and support the foster homes it does have within its network. The agency also lacks crucial data regarding how many foster placements are needed and the capacity of current foster homes, inhibiting the agency’s ability to fully understand the scope of the problem.
  3. A number of staffing challenges compromise the division’s ability to perform essential child welfare functions. These challenges include chronic understaffing, overwhelming workloads, high turnover, and a large proportion of inexperienced staff in need of better training, supervision, and guidance.

Recommendations

We make 24 recommendations that address the agency’s management challenges, foster parent recruitment and retention, and child welfare staffing. Our recommendations also affirm the foundational recommendations Public Knowledge LLC made in September 2016.

The Department generally agrees with our recommendations. The Department’s response can be found at the end of the report.

Read the full report here.

Featured New Audit Release

Department of Human Services: To Better Achieve its Mission, Vision, and Goals, DHS Must Increase Efforts to Address Employees’ Concerns

Executive Summary


The engagement level of employees can directly influence their ability to do their job and thrive professionally and personally. In April 2016, we conducted a survey of Department of Human Services (DHS) employees to help DHS management identify work environment factors positively or negatively affecting employee engagement.

Survey respondents generally reported they know the agency’s mission vision, and goals and are proud to work there. But their responses also highlighted areas within DHS that need improvement. These included tools and resources to accomplish the work, compensation, hiring practices, recognition, professional development, stress and workload distribution, and communication. Addressing these issues will help DHS improve employee engagement and better achieve the agency’s mission, vision and values.

Read the full report here.

Overview of DHS

The Department of Human Services’ (DHS) mission is to help Oregonians in their own communities achieve safety, well-being, and independence through services that protect, empower, respect choice, and preserve dignity. The agency’s biennial budget is about $10 billion with 7,897 full time equivalent staff.

The agency serves over a million Oregonians each year through two support services units and five program areas. The five programs provide services through numerous field and local offices throughout the state. Central Services, which includes the Director’s office, and Shared Services, provide support and leadership to the following programs: Aging and People with Disabilities, Child Welfare, Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities, Self-Sufficiency, and Vocational Rehabilitation.

Employee engagement is important

Engaged employees are passionate, energetic, and dedicated to their job and organization. One study indicates that a higher level of employee engagement correlates with higher rates of success in achieving strategic goals, higher employee retention, and fewer days of sick leave and lost time.

Work environment surveys can help an organization measure its level of employee engagement. DHS has been conducting an employee survey since 2012 that consists of seven questions designed to measure employee engagement.

Our survey was designed to measure the factors that influence employee engagement. DHS management could use the results of our survey to identify areas to improve, and set priorities for action.

Core knowledge and respectful work units given high ratings among respondents

Survey results indicate that DHS is doing well in four areas that influence engagement: mission, vision, goals; job suitability; respectful work units and reporting of harassing and discriminating behavior; and teamwork.

Nearly all respondents reported they knew the mission, vision, and goals of the agency; and how their work relates to these goals. Furthermore, over 85% of respondents reported they are proud to work at DHS. Almost all of the respondents reported they found their work to be meaningful.

Survey highlights concerns DHS management should address

DHS management should address perceived deficiencies that influence employee engagement. We surveyed 7,426 DHS employees and received 4,580 completed surveys, resulting in a 62% response rate. Employees rated their level of agreement with survey questions regarding factors that influence employee engagement. The response benchmarks we used were based on the existing DHS metrics, which are as follows: 85% and above means the respondent perceives DHS as doing well for that factor; between 66% – 84% means a factor that needs some improvement; and 65% and below means a factor that is in critical need of management attention.

Survey respondents identified seven factors in need of improvement – tools and resources, compensation, hiring practices, recognition, stress and workload, professional development, and communication.

Only 55% of respondents felt they had sufficient tools and resources to do their job. At least 50% of respondents across two units and five programs reported a high level of stress. Many respondents reported concerns about the fairness and competitiveness of hiring practices, and a lack of recognition for the work they do.

Another key factor related to employee engagement and organizational success is communication. For an agency as large as DHS, with offices all over the state, communication can be particularly challenging. However, according to a Newfoundland and Labrador Statistics Agency’s work environment survey, direct and timely communication from senior leaders can go a long way in making employees feel informed and connected.

Leaders also need honest feedback from employees who provide services to clients, in order to help them make the best decisions. Overall, less than half of the respondents felt that communication and information flows effectively between the central office and the field offices.

Recommendations

To better achieve its mission, vision, and goals, we recommend DHS management develop and implement a plan to address the seven areas needing improvement: tools and resources, compensation, hiring practices, recognition, professional development, stress and workload, and communication.

To gauge whether efforts are improving engagement, we recommend DHS management administer a work environment survey at least annually that includes the factors we identified that influence engagement.

Last, we recommend management use the future survey results to revise the plan, as needed.

Agency Response

The agency generally agreed with our recommendations. The full agency response can be found at the end of the report.

Featured New Audit Release Noteworthy