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Progress in improving child welfare

The reports from the Department of Human Services Critical Incident Review Team are some of the most heartbreaking items the state of Oregon produces.

The team reviews child fatalities when there is a connection to the state’s child welfare department within a year of the death. The CIRT reports aim to understand what happened and consider what, if anything, can be learned.

A CIRT report from 2020 looked into what may have been a suicide or accidental overdose by a 16-year-old in December 2020.

Rewind back to 2016. DHS received a report about the child. The child was then 12 and struggling with mental health and self-harm. That investigation was closed because no evidence was found of parental abuse or neglect.

Then in December 2019, DHS received a report when the child was 15. The allegation: The child was struggling with suicide and it was not being adequately addressed by the parents. There also was information that the parents let the child drink at home.

The parents initially denied the caseworker access to the home. Later, the caseworker was able to meet with the parents and learned they were aware of the child’s problems. The mother told the caseworker the school contacted her with concern about a social media post from the child in December 2019. The mother said she stayed home with the child to ensure the child’s safety.

The family had no health insurance. They did have resources through the child’s school to access counseling. The caseworker interviewed multiple other people, including school staff, family members and the child’s therapist. They did not report concerns. Based on the investigation, the allegations of neglect were ruled unfounded. The parents seemed to be taking appropriate action. A year later, the child was dead of suicide or accidental overdose.

In child abuse and neglect, there are often missed chances to intervene or help. It’s hard to point fingers and know for certain what more could and should have been done in this case, at least from the detail in the report. It doesn’t really answer that.

Some, perhaps most, child abuse is preventable. What can make a difference is giving families in need the support — economic, mental health and more — they need to stay together and prevent children from being harmed.

A twinkle of hope comes from the Family First Prevention Services Act. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, worked on and got it passed in 2018. Child welfare advocates had long complained the federal government was getting child welfare funding wrong. Federal money was available, though the majority of it was only available once a child was removed from a family. Shouldn’t the government put more effort into giving families what they need to succeed? The act enabled Oregon and other states to get reimbursed for services outside of foster care.

The state of Oregon just received permission from the federal government to move ahead with its version. That is very welcome news. Oregon’s plan includes offering families programs for mental health, addiction and recovery, resources for pregnant and parenting teens and residential treatment requirements. Will it prevent more child abuse? We don’t know. We hope so.

There is more work to be done by Oregon’s DHS to ensure it succeeds and fewer CIRT reports must be written.