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Oregon Child Welfare Workers Ask Lawmakers For Money To Lower Caseloads

<p>Melissa Unger, the executive director of SEIU Local 503, speaks during a rally for&nbsp;Oregon Child Welfare caseworkers in Salem, Ore., April 30, 2019.</p>

Kaylee Domzalski

Melissa Unger, the executive director of SEIU Local 503, speaks during a rally for Oregon Child Welfare caseworkers in Salem, Ore., April 30, 2019.

Oregon Child Welfare caseworkers were in Salem on Tuesday, urging lawmakers to give their agency more money to help alleviate crushing caseloads.

“Oregon’s foster care system is in crisis; we’ve known it’s been in crisis for years,” said Melissa Unger, the executive director of SEIU Local 503. “Decades of insufficient revenue and the resulting underfunding of essential services has impacts, and it is time for us to step up and fund our Child Welfare system to protect vulnerable children.”

Although the state’s Child Welfare system has struggled for years, it’s under increasing scrutiny of late. The state is facing a class-action lawsuit over how it treats the children in its care. Most recently, Child Welfare officials have been criticized for placing children in facilities out-of-state and in juvenile detention centers and have come under fire for making mandatory reporters wait more than an hour to report abuse to the state’s hotline.

Caseworkers who were in front of the state Capitol on Tuesday spoke of having so many caseloads they couldn’t adequately do their job.

One described what it was like to place a pair of siblings with adopted parents — a decision that would affect the rest of their lives — when she barely had time to get to know the children or the parents.

The union members are requesting an additional $80 million to go toward the goal of hiring 700 more caseworkers.

But whether additional funds to hire more caseworkers is an immediate solution is uncertain. Turnover within the Child Welfare system is so high, the agency has struggled to recruit and train new employees fast enough.

In an April 2019 legislative report to Gov. Kate Brown, officials wrote that in March they had 301 vacancies. Out of those, eight were filled, they were in the process of actively hiring 220 and 73 spots were still open.

The agency’s two-year budget for 2017-19 is $1.5 billion.

Unger, with SEIU, argued that if the state doesn’t start funding the basics it’s difficult to make progress on any of the other fronts, such as providing adequate training and lowering caseloads. Without that progress, she said, the agency would continue to struggle to keep or hire employees.

There are currently about 7,500 foster care kids in the state’s custody and about 2,290 positions within the Child Welfare agency, including caseworkers, administrative staff and support staff.

Wendy Stott, a caseworker with the state for about two years, said the state has never fully funded Child Welfare. Caseworkers always have caseloads that are too high, Stott said.

“Give us enough people to do our jobs right and see if we do our jobs right. Why don’t we try it?” she said.

On the day of the rally, Oregon sent eight of their Child Welfare staff to check on foster care children at a psychiatric residential facility in Utah. There were reports of more than 20 teenagers who were injured in a riot that broke out in the facility.

There are more than 20 Oregon foster care children placed at Red Rock Canyon School in St. George, Utah. The state said no Oregon children were arrested or hospitalized in the brawl.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Lauren Dake is a political reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before OPB, Lauren spent nearly a decade working as a print reporter. She’s covered politics and rural issues in Oregon and Washington.