After the regrettable death of a 15-year old girl from Albany in the foster care system, the Oregon Department of Human services decided to review a random sample of 101 child welfare case decisions for insight into what could be improved. The disturbing conclusion found that many children were deemed safe by social workers despite being kept in unstable or threatening environments. Oregon’s social workers consistently failed to protect children by failing to recognize clear signs of abuse or neglect, or failing to thoroughly investigate reports.

The reports spanned 11 counties in Oregon, including Clackamas and Washington counties. They looked at kids in urban and rural parts of the state. Issues overlapped in several cases where social workers did not properly conduct their duties. Senate Human Services Chair Sara Gelser of Corvallis was astounded at the results. She went so far as to state the agency is “in a state of chaos and disrepair.” On a chilling note, those who work in child abuse assessment centers were not surprised in the least to hear about the results. They witness the effects these situations have on children on a daily basis.

What Went Wrong?

On one February day in 2016, the Oregon child protective services office received a startling report. Someone called in about a mother having hallucinations and threatening to go buy a gun. Two months later, a social worker checked in on her kids.

So much could have happened in the two months between the time the call was received and the time the children were interviewed by the social worker. The mother could have obtained a firearm and presented a real threat to her children. After analyzing 101 reports, the system clearly needs an overhaul. Oregon’s child welfare system routinely fails to protect young children. Workers miss or completely ignore threats to their safety. They fail to dig deeper into the reports they are tasked with investigating.

Nearly half of the reports analyzed revealed that social workers incorrectly determine child safety.  In 27% of cases, social workers failed to search for defined safety threats. A safety threat is any family behavior, conditions, or circumstances that could result in harm to a child. Additionally, in 20% of cases social workers misidentified the risks.

In one example, children were kept in a home where they were bitten by rates, but the social worker allowed them to stay. In the report about the hallucinating mother, the social worker responsible believed the children when they told the social worker they felt safe with their mother. In this particular case, social workers took what the children reported at face value. In other examples, social workers failed to dig deeper or interview other children in the home who were not the subject of the original report.

Many cases were also handled using the state’s “alternative response method” in which kids are kept at home while parents are given the help they need to recover from various challenges they may face. Up until now, caseworkers do not need to determine whether abuse or neglect allegations are founded.

Recurring Issues

Similar patterns were discovered in how social workers incorrectly determine whether abuse or neglect takes place. Across many of the case decisions studied, social workers:

  • Did not collect enough information
  • Failed to investigate beyond the specific allegations
  • Talked to the victim only
  • Overlooked the opinions of relatives and teachers
  • Misunderstood or misapplied state laws and policies that define threats to a child’s safety

There were also extensive delays between the time allegations were reported and the time social workers investigated the situation.  

What is being done?

Unfortunately, Oregon continually fails to meet federal performance benchmarks when it comes to its response to child abuse allegations. As a response to these findings, Gelser introduced a bill amendment that would require CPS workers to record whether each allegation of abuse or neglect is likely true, false, or unable to be determined.

State caseworkers are often overloaded with cases and can exercise poor judgment. Vulnerable children are often at risk of continued exposure to abuse and neglect. Learn more about issues impacting safety, well-being, and justice at rizklaw.com. To schedule a confidential appointment to discuss a claim with an attorney, call (503) 245-5677 or email info@rizklaw.com.