Governor, director defend DHS after judge assails it

PORTLAND, Ore. - Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber says he thinks caseworkers at the state's Department of Human Services are well trained despite some criticism that workers in the agency are overworked and inexperienced.

"I appreciate the criticisms out there. I also think it's a broad generalization, because there're lots of really experienced, well trained people in the child welfare system," he said.

The governor's comments came after the state's decision to remove two children from the Portland foster parents who wanted to adopt them.

One of the primary criticisms of DHS is that it didn't explain its actions in the case.

State child welfare workers for DHS pulled the children from Brenda Lincoln's and Willie Norman's home in October where they had lived for two and a half years.

The move outraged the children's biological family and Multnomah County Judge Susan Svetkey.

The judge said "the timing of all of this is concerning and suspicious."

She also lectured DHS saying, "What happened to them (the children) is exactly what the therapists have told us is the worst thing."

Additionally, the judge said in court she's frustrated the Legislature didn't give judges the power to tell DHS what to do.

DHS wouldn't and didn't have to explain its move to the judge. Erinn Kelley-Siel, DHS director, said the agency is being as transparent as allowed by law.

"I know it's very frustrating for the media and for the public, and it's hard for us as well, because sometimes we have a story to tell and we can't in the interest of protecting the privacy of the children and families that we're serving," she said.

Regarding the Lincoln and Norman case, Kelley-Siel said "that is one of those open cases that we'd be happy to talk more with you about within the constraints that we have. And we certainly understand that we're not perfect all the time. We make mistakes, and it's a human system."

Pamela Butler with Children First for Oregon said her organization gets a lot of calls from foster parents.

"(They) don't understand decisions that are being made, and they're not involved and valued and honored in the process. And the same thing with kids in the system," she said.

Butler and Children First for Oregon are behind a proposed Foster Children's Bill of Rights (Senate Bill 123) to allow Oregon foster children more protection and voice in their fate.

"You've got cases where, like we've seen recently, a judge feels one way, a lawyer feels another and a caseworker feels another way, and they don't sit down to hash out why they feel those ways and to bring all the information to light that each of them has," Butler said. "A lot of times there's the asymmetry of information between all the key players and at the end of the day who gets hurt by that? It's the kids."

During a news conference Tuesday at the Capitol, Kitzhaber and Kelley-Siel celebrated a new way of doing business and pledged millions of dollars to a program where child welfare workers try to keep kids with their families by helping moms and dads improve their parenting skills. The state hopes to avoid charging them with neglect.

Budget cuts mean DHS is working with only two-thirds the staffing it should have. Critics also say DHS caseworkers are often inexperienced and ill trained.

As for whether the state should be putting money toward DHS, Kitzhaber said, "Some of it is going to beef up the staff. It's hiring more workers. But it's also being investing in training as well. Again, I'm going to push back and say there's a lot of staff that doesn't need re-training and doing a really good job day in and day out."

Oregon is always high on the list for the number of kids put into foster care. The latest data shows more than 4,000 kids entered foster care in Oregon in 2011. That's the lowest number of kids in the previous five years.

Several lawmakers have been looking into the Lincoln and Norman case and the foster care system. But it's too soon to propose anything.