Ore. caseworkers urge more child welfare funding

Hiring freeze just one of many challenges

PORTLAND, Ore. - More state requirements and fewer people to carry them out. That's how child welfare workers summarize what's happening in Oregon, and they're traveling to Salem Monday to make their case to lawmakers.

For two years, they have been under a hiring freeze, like many state agencies, with two caseworkers doing the work of three.

Add a challenging new software system, and mandates to remedy racial inequalities in the foster care system and find more relatives to place children with -- and Barbara Casey, an in-home caseworker at the Alberta Child Welfare office in north Portland, said they have their hands full.

"All of that, they're all good mandates, all good goals: preserving families, reunifying families, strengthening them," she said. "It's just compounded to get to it, when you just don't have enough people there."

Almost 1,300 case workers respond to more than 75,000 reports of child abuse and neglect in Oregon, and they supervise about 13,000 children in foster care.

Gov. John Kitzhaber's proposed budget for Child Welfare services would bring the agency to 80 percent of its staffing needs, up from a current level of 67 percent.

One area affected by the staffing cuts is the amount of time at-risk parents can spend with their children, Casey said.

The visits have to be supervised, she explained, and there aren't enough workers -- called social service assistants -- to meet the needs.

Child welfare workers play an important role for Oregon families, she added, and many resent being called "bureaucrats" during budget debates.

"We're not pushing papers -- we are intervening at a very difficult time in people's lives," she said. "To me, it's a sacred trust. I have children and I have moms and dads that I want to reunite and keep at home."

The governor's budget includes money for a new approach to dealing with suspected child abuse cases that focuses on early intervention for families and keeping children out of foster care.

The number of suspected child abuse cases in Oregon has risen for a decade, which could mean that more people are coming forward to report abuse and neglect.

Chris Thomas of Oregon News Service provided this story

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