Twenty-eight years ago, Cathy and I learned that some Child Welfare administrators were bullies. They managed through fear and intimidation, while others were angels, dedicated to helping the children in their charge. Although the situation has only worsened over the years, and the harm done to children is truly a tragedy, there is hope that the situation is about to change.
For Cathy and me, it all started back in 1990 when a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) worker told us about a sweet, nine-year-old girl whose mother was dying a slow and tragic death from an incurable genetic disease. This little girl had been in multiple foster homes, and because she might also carry this genetic defect, a recent adoption had fallen through.*
After serious consideration, Cathy and I felt strongly that we had room in our hearts and in our home for this little girl. We held a family council and discussed with our seven daughters the opportunity they had to invite a less fortunate girl to become their forever sister and share our loving family with her. They were excited and agreed that once little Mary joined our family, she would be “all in,” and from that day forward we would have eight daughters who would be treated the same.
We were determined to have little Mary become a part of our family. It took many months of jumping through bureaucratic hoops before our family was finally certified for foster care and nearly a year before the uncontested adoption could be completed, and Mary joined our stable home with seven enthusiastic sisters.
Unfortunately, not all Oregon foster children fare as well. The Secretary of State’s Audits Division has just released the Department of Human Services Child Welfare System audit entitled, “Foster Care in Oregon: Chronic management failures and high caseloads jeopardize the safety of some of the state’s most vulnerable children.” I hope every one of us who cares about the wellbeing of children will read every page of this audit report. It speaks to our heads and it speaks to our hearts.
The report exposes that tonight, some of Oregon’s children will be sleeping in hotels with tired, over-worked caseworkers. Others will be cold, hungry, and unloved. This year, 11,000 Oregon children will be impacted by DHS and the Child Welfare system. On any given day, 7,600 foster children will be in the system, and DHS cannot ensure they will receive adequate care and services. State leaders are truly alarmed by this disgraceful situation and now must make its solution a priority.
Last September, the Governor hired a new Department of Human Services Director, Fariborz Pakseresht, and two months ago he hired a new Child Welfare Director, Marilyn Jones. Both are experienced professionals with decades of life experience. Both are determined to change things in Oregon’s child welfare and foster care system. The new leadership team at DHS is ready and willing to support their caseworkers and give them the time and resources they need to do their jobs. This will only happen if we are ready to step up and provide the backing necessary to provide safe and loving foster homes and support for our most vulnerable Oregon children.
The time for hand-wringing, finger-pointing and excuses is past. The time for action is now. It is up to the Governor and our Legislative leaders, in my opinion, to give Oregon’s child welfare and foster care system the same focus and attention that was given to our State Mental Hospital a decade ago. When Senate President Peter Courtney learned of the appalling situation at the State Mental Hospital where deceased patients’ ash cans lined shelves in dark closets and where live patients were warehoused for years with no treatment plans and lived in horrendous conditions, he said, “Enough is enough.” Senator Courtney committed that the neglect would not be permitted to continue. As a result of his leadership, and with support from the Legislature and Governor Kulongoski, Oregon’s State Mental Hospital has been rebuilt and now is a place for growth, recovery, and learning. That same commitment to fix a broken system is needed now, but our elected officials cannot solve the child welfare crisis alone.
Oregon will be a better state if we make this personal and view these children as if they are our responsibility. If you agree, the first step is to become educated. Read this audit report and consider the nature, extent, and cause of the situation we find ourselves in, and contemplate the recommendations we have made to fix this deplorable situation.
See what other concerned Oregonians are doing to help in their communities. Read about the single woman in Roseburg who has turned a room in her home into a store where foster parents can go for free clothing, school supplies, and other durable goods. Read about the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) volunteers who spend an hour or two each week helping children in foster care as someone outside of the system who is watching out for them. Think about what it might be like to be a foster parent yourself, or to spend an occasional weekend providing respite care so that a foster parent can get a break from the pressures of dealing with special needs foster children.
A group of women in my community in Central Point are getting together each Thursday morning in a “Friendship Circle” and have made 21 quilts and receiving blankets for me to take to police officers and caseworkers to keep babies and foster children warm. Maybe you have ideas of other things individuals or groups can do to help.
If you are willing to do something or have ideas on how others can help, please contact Child Welfare Director Marilyn Jones and her staff at the following email address: I.WantToHelp@dhsoha.state.or.us.
Turning Oregon’s child welfare and foster care system around will not happen overnight, so let’s start now and do our part.
In conclusion, the tragedy of our child welfare and foster care system demands thoughtful and immediate attention. But there is hope. DHS Director Fariborz Pakseresht, Child Welfare Director Marilyn Jones, and the DHS leaders across the state are committed to restoring child safety and wellbeing as the primary mission of the child welfare and foster care system. They cannot do it alone. Our Governor and Legislators must provide our foster care leaders and caseworkers with the funding and tools they need to serve this most vulnerable population entrusted to their care. In addition, each of us can do something to make life better for foster parents, caseworkers, and most importantly, for our Oregon foster children.
* Our daughter, Mary, is now a successful Physician’s Assistant in Portland. She is happily married, has a home, two cats and is living the dream. Mary recently took the test for the Huntington’s chorea gene, and we are all delighted to know she did not inherit the defective gene. As a result, this tragic disease that took her biological mother and grandfather will not affect her or any children she might bear.