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Others say: NEW DHS boss faces a tough task

Is there a tougher, more frustrating job in all of Oregon state government than serving as the head of the Department of Human Services?

If so, we’re not sure we want to hear about it, considering the uphill battle that faced Clyde Saiki, who last week announced plans to retire in September. The same uphill battle awaits the man Gov. Kate Brown has tapped to replace him, Fariborz Pakseresht.

Saiki’s plans to retire weren’t much of a secret around Salem; when he took over the department in 2015, it was generally assumed that his first charge would be to stop the department’s free fall and get it stabilized to the point where it could be handed over to another administrator.

One of his first big moves came in March 2016, when he fired top two officials in the department.

Saiki also worked hard to regain the trust of legislators, who were increasingly critical (and usually with justification) of the agency’s performance in a number of areas.

One of the harshest critics of the department was mid-valley state Sen. Sara Gelser. But she has praised Saiki for the work he’s done to steady what appeared to be a sinking ship.

But this is the same Gelser who, just a few weeks ago, said that the Department of Human Services is in “a state of chaos and disrepair.” She was responding to an internal department report that found Oregon’s child welfare workers regularly miss or ignore threats to the safety of children.

That report suggests the sheer scope of the work that remains for Pakseresht. And, since it seems unlikely that legislators will be reducing their scrutiny of the department anytime soon, he’ll have to do it under a spotlight.

The Department of Human Services is the state’s biggest, with about 8,000 employees and a biennial budget of more than $10 billion. Its duties, boiled down to the essentials, include protecting the state’s most vulnerable citizens, including children in foster care. Department employees are charged with making the toughest of decisions in very tough situations — should a child be removed from a potentially dangerous situation? What constitutes a potentially dangerous situation? And where will children who are removed from their families go in a state that suffers from a chronic statewide shortage of foster care?

As Gelser herself has taken pains to document, the department has not always done a good job covering these basics. But she also would add that the vast majority of the department’s employees are working long hours with limited resources in extremely difficult circumstances.

Pakseresht, who plans to assume the reins at the Department of Human Services in September, now heads the Oregon Youth Authority; legislators who have watched that agency, which deals with juvenile offenders, say he’s done good work there. With Saiki planning to stay at Human Services until September, there should be plenty of time to ensure a relatively smooth transition.

Among Pakseresht’s key tasks in his new role: continuing the work that Saiki has started to overhaul the agency’s culture and stabilize its workforce. Among other key issues, the morale of employees in the agency is not what it should be.

And, of course, Pakseresht will have to make the case to his boss and legislators that the agency requires additional resources to follow through on the changes already underway. If those additional resources aren’t forthcoming, then department employees (and the people they’re supposed to be protecting) will be left with the sneaking suspicion that all this talk of reform likely will amount in the end to little more than lip service.

The Democrat-Herald

Albany

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