Ontario, Ore. – Malheur County’s Department of Human Services is experiencing a serious crisis because of the significant, and quickly growing, rise in children needing temporary foster homes.
The state intervenes in homes where they feel children are no longer safe because of evidence of neglect or abuse. As often as possible, the children are placed with relatives, but if that is not an option they are placed in volunteer foster homes.
Since April, however, all of Malheur County has seen a significant and overwhelming rise in cases where children need foster homes, and DHS simply doesn’t have the resources to handle the numbers, Program Manager Christine Phillips said.
“Since April, and especially these last two months, we’ve had a significant increase in child abuse and neglect,” Phillips said. “A large number of these issues are related to alcohol and drug use by the parents, and they simply are unable to keep their children safe.”
DHS tries to minimize the number of children placed in foster care by working with families or placing the children with relatives, but now a whole new wave has come through with a resurgence of methamphetamine and heroin use, District Manager Wendy Hill said.
DHS averages about 70 children in foster care at any given time, Hill said. Since the end of August, however, that number increased from 70 to 121, with seven new children placed in foster care in the last week alone.
“In the past we have been very successful with wrapping children cases around their own families,” Phillips said. “Now it’s rare when we can do that.”
Phillips said DHS needs foster parents and volunteers to help families, foster children, provide rides if they can or even donate gift cards for food or buy toiletry items.
“One of the big things is that we’d like to have foster parents who are willing to work with the children’s biological parents, too, and show them how to be a role model,” Hill said. “We don’t view these parents as bad people. They’re just in a rough situation and can’t provide the care their children need, and that makes this difficult. It’s rare when the children don’t want to be with their parents, so being placed in foster care is traumatic, and foster parents need to understand that and be patient.”
Hill said if the foster parents integrate themselves into the families of the children they are fostering and guide the parents it helps substantially. Addiction is at the heart of the majority of these cases, she said, and if the parents have a parenting role model to look to and network with, it does help decrease their chances of relapsing.
Because of the high number of recent foster cases, DHS has had to make exceptions to the number of children allowed in foster homes, and staff have even rented hotel rooms for a night until they can find temporary homes for children, Hill said.
“We have beautiful children that need a home to love them while their families are in the process of healing,” Phillips said. “We need homes for infants to 18-year-olds. However, right now, we do have a lot more younger children than older.”
People interested in fostering children must first pass a criminal background check, complete 15 hours of training, go through a home-safety process and obtain a written assessment of their family and their specialties, Phillips said.
“We do try to match children to homes that can specifically meet their needs,” Phillips said.
Foster parents are reimbursed for room and board, but Hill stressed this is not a way to make some extra money. DHS pays for the child’s needs and little else.
Oregon law requires DHS put a plan in action to return the children to the parents as soon as possible, Hill said. They try to place parents into programs to provide the assistance needed, and once they have shown the ability to sustain a safe environment for their children they can be reunited.