Baker City’s Harvest Church hosted the first Families Helping Families event Thursday to help spur interest among people interested in serving as foster families or helping those who do.
The event was sponsored by the Oregon Department of Human Services Child Welfare office.
The event allowed officials to present information to community members about volunteer opportunities, and there was a panel of local officials to answer questions from prospective foster families.
Benjamin Potter introduced each speaker and gave statistics of foster children in Oregon. Potter is a foster parent of 16 years, and a trainer, recruiter, and retainer for DHS in Baker, Union and Wallowa counties.
“We are here to start a movement, that’s what this is about,” Potter said.
According to Potter’s slide presentation, Oregon has nearly twice as many kids in foster care as the nationwide average. Yet the number of foster homes has declined by 15%, according to the 2018 Child Welfare Data Book.
“A lot of DHS agencies have been understaffed,” he said. “Work demand is high. There’s a lot of kids needing places, a lot of families to work with and not enough workers.”
Potter said some parents have left foster care because they had poor relationships with the supervising agency and did not feel supported.
“That’s all changing, there’s some great things in place now,” he said. “For instance they’ve hired my position. My position is to support the foster parents we do have and recruit new ones.”
Potter said Baker County has 41 kids in foster care, but only 15 foster homes. That makes a ratio of one home per 2.7 kids.
“It’s just not enough. We need more foster families desperately,” he said.
Some local children are being housed in foster homes outside Baker County.
That’s not ideal, Potter said, because it requires kids to move away from their hometown, friends and service providers.
“Also we want to keep that contact between birth family and kids as tight as possible so that they can maintain that relationship,” Potter said.
Greg Baxter, who retired last fall as Baker County Circuit Court judge, talked about the trauma that foster children endure.
“They may see their parents be arrested, they’re taken out of the home in some manner, but we know there is trauma,” Baxter said. “That’s what we want in a foster family — someone who loves them. They want some stability for a period of time in their lives.”
Marcus Gillette, co-director of Every Child Oregon, said the organization works to help children and families in Oregon.
The group is working to change the narrative around DHS and the foster care system following recent media reports about state officials sending Oregon children to out-of-state, for-profit facilities.
“This is something that is going to take all of us,” Gillette said.
Every Child has different volunteer opportunities for those interested in helping families and foster children.
Josh Erickson is the Baker City interim director for Safe Families for Children, a faith-based organization that works to reduce the need for foster care homes.
“I think that we can do something to lessen that number,” Erickson said, referring to the 41 children in Baker County’s foster care.
He told a personal story about his grandparents taking in his family to help them after his father left.
“The problem is, there’s a lot of families that don’t have that extended network,” Erickson said. “We are looking and what we look to do is how do we provide extended family to those in our community?”
The idea, he said, is to offer support to families until they can be reunited.
“Because families together is the best thing we can do, it’s the best thing for those kids if we can keep them together,” Erickson said. “That’s what we are here to do. We are here to partner with local congregations, local families, to volunteer to be a part of this movement.”
Safe Families for Children is looking for volunteers to help the host families who would be willing to baby-sit and meet with the parents to help them through a crisis.
“Our goal is to support the foster care system here, our goal is to promote a healthy community through volunteers,” Erickson said. “We want to be a support to that. We want to bring that number down, the amount of kids that are in foster care, but we need a strong foster care system too.”
Bryce Van Zelph is a regional child placing coordinator for therapeutic foster homes with Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc. (GOBHI) of The Dalles.
It works with youth ages 4 to 18 who are identified as having behavioral, emotional, or mental health needs and thus require more intensive coordinated support than what can be provided in traditional foster care.
“Sometimes there’s no home for a kid to go so DHS reaches out to us,” said Zelph. “Our goal is to stabilize these kids, get them back to permanent placement whether that is guardianship, back to their families, it kind of depends on whatever route that youth is on within the system.”
A panel of the speakers and others answered questions from Potter and audience members. The panel consisted of Gillette; foster parents Ken and Becky Foster; Baxter; CASA representative Mary Collard; Megan Spriet, a birth mother of children who had been in foster care; and DHS foster parent certifier Susan Lemon.