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By The Skanner News | The Skanner News
Published: 01 December 2009

SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- Washington County has the worst record in the state for protecting children in state foster care.
Last month, state caseworkers failed to see more than 400 Washington County youngsters living in foster homes. And nearly 70 reports of suspected abuse or neglect were not investigated in the 24 hours or five days recommended, depending upon the urgency of the call.
In the past 19 of 23 months, performance data from the Oregon Department of Human Services ranked its Washington County child welfare offices dead last. And during the four months when Washington County didn't finish last, it ranked near the bottom on key measurements for keeping children safe.
State supervisors say they're aware of the problems in Oregon's second-most populated county. They've brought in experts from the central office and the Seattle-based Casey Family Programs to help.
"I am absolutely 100 percent committed to excellence across the state in child welfare and am prepared to do whatever it takes," Erinn Kelley-Siel, head of Oregon's Children, Adults and Families Division, said recently.
The agency began publishing monthly reports a few years ago to track how field offices across the state are doing and to hold workers more accountable.
An Oregonian review of two years of those reports indicates other Portland-area child welfare offices often ranked well ahead of both Washington County and statewide averages.
For example, November's report shows Multnomah County caseworkers had one-on-one visits with 85.2 percent of the 2,649 children in state care. Washington County saw 62.9 percent of the 1,177 children in foster care.
In Clackamas County, child protection workers investigated 81.5 percent -- or 163 of 200 -- abuse reports received within state-set deadlines. In Washington County, 146 of 214 reports, or 68.2 percent, were investigated by the deadline.
What's going on in Washington County?
Jerry Waybrant, a deputy assistant director and field office supervisor, says Washington County covers a large geographic area, making travel between foster homes and families extra time-consuming.
Economically, the county has transformed from agriculture to high tech. And Human Services offices in Washington County have struggled to keep pace with the expanding and increasingly diverse population.
Since 2007, the state has boosted Washington County child welfare staffing by adding 12 caseworkers, six supervisors and three social service assistants. One in four of the new employees is bilingual, officials said. And they continue to try to recruit more workers fluent in Spanish, Russian and Southeast Asian languages.
But performance data do not show improvement as a result of those new workers. Marge Reinhart, a central office deputy assistant director and field supervisor, says that's because it takes up to two years for caseworkers and other specialized workers to gain full competency.
Some who do not work for the state but have contact with Washington County's child welfare offices blame the problems on a management reorganization several years ago.
"There was a change in managers, and following that there was an enormous turnover in caseworkers," said Emily Cohen, an attorney who has since stopped taking cases from Washington County.
"I just felt like the agency was in disarray," Cohen said.
In the past few years, Washington County has also been the focus of high-profile media reports concerning child abuse.
In September, the state acknowledged that child welfare workers discounted or ignored reports of abuse in a Washington County foster home for more than a decade and continued sending children to that home -- right up until the father was arrested for sexually abusing one of the girls in his care.
In March, The Oregonian published a two-day series about the 2005 murder of Adrianna Romero Cram, a foster child from Washington County who was sent to Mexico by child welfare officials to live with relatives. The little girl was abused and killed while still in state custody.
Robin Christian, executive director of Children First for Oregon, said her organization will keep a close watch on future performance reports and particularly on Washington County.
"We know that DHS is doing the best job they can under very difficult circumstances," she said. "However we're going to continue to make sure that they're doing everything they should be to keep kids safe."



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