Reflections on Child Welfare Investments During the 2021 Legislative Session and the Road Ahead

In the wake of the 2021 Legislative Session, it is time to reflect on how key decisions made at the state level will impact the futures of Oregon’s communities that face significant challenges. Children, older youth, and families involved in the child welfare system are among those most deeply impacted by the events of the past year, including COVID-19, the wildfires, and racial injustices. Prior to the pandemic, this system was not working for many of Oregon’s children. In 2019, the percentage of Black children placed in foster care was 1.5 times higher than the percentage in the state’s total child population, and 3 times higher for Indigenous children. In 2018, 80% of older foster youth in Oregon had aged out of the system without a permanent and stable place to live. COVID-19 has forced families to overcome additional barriers such as reduced in-person visitations, court delays, housing shortages, severe economic hardships, and many other challenges exacerbating existing inequities in the child welfare system. Earlier this year, the death of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant at the hands of police served as another tragic reminder of how the system often fails children of color in our country.

In 2020, the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) put forth a bold Vision for Transformation, a strategic roadmap led by Child Welfare Director Rebecca Jones Gaston, which lays out several guiding principles to reimagine a system that enables families to access the supports they need, prevent unnecessary out-of-home placements, and keep children connected to their cultures and communities of origin. However, a vision alone is not enough to sustain the lasting reforms that Oregon families need. These changes require significant state investments to bolster the progress already being made by the Child Welfare Agency and expand the upstream services that will buffer families from adversity in future generations.

Safe, Supported, and Cherished: Child Welfare System Reform in Oregon 

Produced by Our Children Oregon with leadership from OCO policy intern alumna, Peggy Ting, MSW, this issue brief provides a longitudinal environmental scan of efforts to reform Oregon’s child welfare system and proposes a shared-values framework to ground future efforts. 

UPCOMING WEBINAR—InterACTions: A Panel Discussion and Q&A on Child Welfare Reform in Oregon

Join us on Tuesday, August 31st at 12PM PST for a webinar on child welfare reform in Oregon featuring Rebecca Jones Gaston, Oregon’s Child Welfare Director, and others in discussion followed by a Q&A. Stay tuned for more details!

Oregon made important investment decisions during the 2021 Legislative Session to strengthen its child welfare system

The Governor’s Recommended Budget for 2021-2023 maintained funding for core child welfare services and added General Fund investments to stabilize support systems and ensure fewer children enter Child Welfare. These additional funds were targeted to expand training capacity, increase staffing levels, create infrastructure for the Family Preservation and Prevention Program, establish an effective respite care program, and add staff support for the Governor’s Child Foster Care Advisory Commission.

During the 2021 Legislative Session, Oregon policymakers made the following investments to improve and strengthen the child welfare system:

  • SB 5529: The legislature passed the ODHS Child Welfare core budget, which includes targeted investments for KEEP, Treatment Foster Care Oregon (TFCO), the Youth Villages Intercept Program, and funding for additional child welfare workers.
  • HB 2505 / ODHS POP 115: Led by the Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC), this bill seeks to eliminate implicit bias within the child welfare system by establishing a Child Welfare Equity Committee housed within the Governor’s Child Foster Care Advisory Commission to review the processes used when making case decisions and make recommendations to the Commission, Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) and the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to ensure families are treated equitably. This bill also expands membership and provides funding to adequately staff the Commission (Total Funds: $221,866).
  • HB 2163: Oregon is currently the highest ranking state for youth houselessness, and a third of unaccompanied houseless youth were at some point involved in the child welfare system. This bill establishes a long-term rent assistance pilot for youth transitioning from foster care and other institutional settings and will designate the three or four pilot locations in urban, rural, and coastal regions ($4.5 million).
  • HB 2738: Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) are trained, independent community volunteers who are appointed by judges to advocate for the best interests of children in Child Welfare. This bill increases resources for the Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program ($5.92 million).
  • HB 2340 / ODHS POP 112 – Previously elevated in 2019 and 2020 by OFYC, HB 2340 expands Independent Living Program (ILP) services to help youth who are transitioning out of foster care gain valuable life skills while establishing supportive relationships with adults and other youth in care ($8.2 million).

Looking ahead: Child welfare investments must continue to grow for children and families to thrive long term

The investments enacted during the 2021 legislative session are a solid first step towards maintaining momentum for ODHS Child Welfare’s Vision for Transformation, but work is still needed and critical gaps remain. As Oregon implements these investments over the next several years, the child welfare community will play a key role in advocating for these dollars to be allocated and spent equitably by centering the voices of children, youth, and families of color, Oregon Tribal Nations, and those with lived experience in the system. Looking ahead, the focus must be on expanding statewide access to the services and programs that address family needs further upstream, such as housing, behavioral health, economic stability, and substance use disorder. A report by the Governor’s Child Foster Care Advisory Commission echoed these needs by calling attention to several areas where Oregon’s child welfare system still needs improvement, namely substitute care capacity and access to mental health and substance use disorder services. 

Oregon must be in this for the long haul and commit to investing strongly and equitably towards building a child welfare system that enables all children, youth, and families in the state to thrive.

Read the Brief and Commit to Child Welfare Reform in Oregon

Safe, Supported, and Cherished: Child Welfare System Reform in Oregon shares a longitudinal view of efforts for child welfare system reform in Oregon, proposing a shared-values framework to ground future efforts.