There was once a time when child welfare caseworkers handled many of their own legal issues, causing legal errors, case delays and a decrease in the amount of time a caseworker spent with families.
A Department of Justice funded program put an end to that. But with a forecast of sharply falling tax revenue in the next biennium, officials say they don't know if this reform effort will survive.
For the past several years, the Department of Justice has provided comprehensive legal work for the Department of Human Service's child dependency cases. With these legal services, caseworkers have increased the amount of time spent face-to-face with parents and children; there has been a decrease in the amount of time spent in court and legal errors have decreased because of mandatory case reviews by the department's lawyers.
"If a case worker is left to figure out what to do next, it's just going to take longer," says Kathy Steiner, a policy analyst for DHS. "It's just not their expertise."
Despite these improvements, public defenders still say funding is inadequate for attorneys that represent the interests of the parents and the children.
In an October 2005 emergency session, the state legislature provided DHS with money to pay for additional legal positions for the Child Welfare program. About 20 paralegal and several clerical positions were funded. For the '07-'09 biennium, about $4.4 million was provided for additional oversight to child dependency cases — those cases in which children are put into the foster care system and either are reunited with their parents or permanently adopted out.
Under the program, paralegals and attorneys work together on the legal aspects of child welfare cases – providing legal representation for the department at every court hearing, as well as extensive legal reviews at a case's five- and 11-month mark.
The extra paralegals have increased the amount of time caseworkers can spend with parents and children; the number of children adopted in the first year of being free for adoption increased; and the number of cases when children languish in foster care limbo has also decreased.
The 10 attorneys – who all work for the Oregon Attorney General's office – have all identified "a number of legal issues on individual cases," according to Tony Green, a spokesman for the Attorney General's office.
"The most common issues raised by attorneys involve issues around relative search and placement, paternity and the Indian Child Welfare Act," he said. Despite a preference to place children in a relative's home, only 30 percent actually are.
Blacks and Native American children are still overrepresented in the Child Welfare system in the state and even more so in Multnomah County — African Americans are 18.8 percent and Native Americans are 18 percent of the county's 2,398 foster children in 2007. DHS does not keep statistics about how many of these children come from poverty. Gene Evans, a DHS spokesman, said the federal government doesn't require state agencies to report those numbers.
Ingrid Swenson, the director of Public Defense Services, whose organization provides public defenders at the onset of a child dependency case to represent both parent and child, said a return to the old system is no one's best interest.
"Parties in any legal proceeding would benefit from input by a legal advisor," she said. "It isn't appropriate for case workers to give their own legal advice."
The lack of proper funding for public defense services is another problem blocking proper reform in the Child Welfare system.
Swenson, who sat on the legislative task force that helped form the DHS legal reviews, says her office did not receive an increase in funding except for a modest cost-of-living increase. Swenson continues to fight for $17 million — a level of funding that would reduce a public defender's caseload by 30 percent. Without a bigger budget, Swenson says that many cases – both in child custody as well as criminal hearings – could leave people without legal representation.
Mark McKechnic, director of the Juvenile Rights Project, said the funding imbalance means the interests of the state are often better represented than the interests of the child.
"The role of the state is schizophrenic," said McKechnic, whose office provides the lawyers who contract with Public Defense Services. "They're prosecuting a case against a parent as they're trying to get the kids back in the home."
For this reason, among others, McKechnie said it was essential for the state to provide more equal funding for public defenders. The attorney general's office bills attorneys by the hour, while public defenders are paid flat fees for their services. One case, he recalled, cost the Department of Human Services $100,000 to prosecute and it cost Public Defense Services $5,000 to defend.
"There's nothing wrong in ramping up resources for the attorney general's office," he said. "They're making sure their client – DHS – is following the law … and that's a good thing. The children will benefit from DHS doing their job better."
Impact on Caseloads
It does seem the additional legal reviews are having an impact on caseloads: 1,783 foster care hearings were avoided; 2,729 legal issues were resolved without a hearing; case workers making face-to-face contact with parents increased from 46 percent to 73 percent of cases; "No Reasonable Effort" findings have decreased – these are cases where the court finds DHS not paying adequate attention to a case.
Other efforts, policy changes and outside interests also influence reform efforts for child welfare.
A Foster Care Statewide Planning group has been meeting to help reform the foster care system. The group's goals are to reduce the number of children entering foster care, reduce the number of children in foster care, reduce the racial disparity and reconcile differences between the Oregon Safety Model and System of Care reform efforts.
The group also wants to increase the number of children placed in relatives' homes – a major critique by groups who are critical of child welfare policies such as Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.
The foster care planning group say they plan to present a list of strategies to address their goals at the end of this month.
Child Abuse in Oregon
Abuse reports received: 63,504
Abuse reports referred: 26,381
Abuse confirmed by caseworker: 10,716
Most common type of maltreatment: Threat of Harm (49 percent) and Neglect (34 percent)
Children reunified with parents: 9,600 (64 percent of cases)
Children permanently removed from home: 955
Importance of Legal Reviews
At 5 months in foster care: Cases are about to go to a citizens review board. Permanency plans are being crafted for children.
At 11 months: The resources that have been made available to parents is reviewed to "enable DHS to know the legal strengths and weaknesses of pursuing various permanency" plans, including adoption and return to parents."
Caseworkers now have face-to-face contact with parents in 73 percent of their cases (opposed to 47 percent of parents before)
More children are being declared legally free for adoption; the amount of time children spend waiting to be adopted has decreased