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Emma Nolan: A look at foster care from the inside

I was 15 years old when I was placed in foster care for the first time. It was the day before Halloween, four days before my 16th birthday.

The host family’s four kids, ages 2 to 10, were in their costumes excitedly awaiting my arrival. They were met at the door by a lumbering, crying teenager.

I was one of the lucky ones, as this Halloween Eve will mark my third year in the same placement.

Among foster youths, DHS, short for the state Department of Human Resources, has become somewhat of a bad word. They have learned to hate the system, because it has failed to protect them, separated them from their siblings and sometimes stranded them in abusive homes.

I have reviewed the dysfunctions documented in the foster care performance audit conducted by the Secretary of State’s office. I hope that it will be enough to foster positive change in a system that has failed so many.

The audit addresses DHS’s failure to develop a solution to perhaps the biggest problem of all — burnout among overextended foster care providers.

Currently, there is no viable strategy in place to recruit new families. Limited alternatives put added strain on the families staying the course, which threatens the longevity, adequacy and safety of placements.

Guest Writer

Emma Nolan is about to graduate as valedictorian of her class at Willamina High School. She serves as editor in chief of her school paper, The Timber Times, whose name reflects Willamina’s timber heritage. She plans to begin journalism studies at the University of Oregon in the fall. In her free time, she enjoys playing Dungeons & Dragons and doting on her pet rooster, Winston Churchill.

At several points, we had seven children in our home, some as young as 2. That’s too many.

The placements were made out of necessity. There was simply nowhere else for these kids to go.

As with most adolescents in the system, these children suffered from behavioral problems and developmental delays as a result of past abuse. That made life hectic for all of us.

My foster mom was constantly driving kids to and from doctor, dentist and counselor appointments. I was juggling high school studies with changing diapers and potty training. Support from DHS was minimal.

My foster mom had to fight for referrals for a 2-year-old whose development was way behind schedule.

In one respect, he was lucky to have someone like her on his team, someone who was finally able to get him the help he needed. But perhaps he would have benefited from a home where he could have gotten more individual attention — one without six other youngsters.

The auditors interviewed many foster care providers. They found foster families were being pressured to take more children than they could accommodate.
All too often, they were persuaded to accept an emergency placement, only to find it stretching over weeks and months.

For us, one week-long emergency placement evolved into an almost year-long ordeal.

The parents stalled, the judges stalled. Court dates came and went.

My family eventually followed others in refusing to accept any new placements. Like so many others, my family decided it just couldn’t handle the strain anymore.

The audit also addresses burnout among caseworkers.

Oregon’s child welfare system is notorious for being understaffed. The work features heavy caseloads and chronic overtime demands, and that leads to a lot of churn.

The constant turnover introduces even more turbulence into a foster youth’s already unstable life.

I’ve had at least half a dozen different caseworkers myself. I was already struggling with feelings of abandonment, and the turnover made it hard to form meaningful relationships through agency support personnel. It got so I had a hard time remembering their names and phone numbers.

If I had been suffering abuse in my situation, I think I would have had a hard time approaching my caseworker about it.

I would have feared the repercussions, knowing the agency would want to move me, but was desperately short of options. And lack of a close, trusting relationship would have made it all the more difficult.

The ages of the majority of foster children amplifies the problem.

Most are young enough to face the prospect of multiple placements arranged through multiple caseworkers. So who do they reach out to for help?

DHS doesn’t offer stability, and that’s crucial to someone whose life has been turned upside down.If caseworkers weren’t so understaffed and overworked, perhaps my own case would have been handled better.

Despite reports from doctors, police officers and counselors documenting the neglect I was suffering in my original home, my case went through a whole series of closures and reopenings without any concrete result.

Multiple caseworkers came into my home. They smelled the overflowing litter box. They saw the empty fridge. But they did nothing for a long, long time, and I felt helpless.

One criticism I have of the state audit is that it doesn’t address the problems with the Strengthening, Preserving and Reunifying Families Act.

In my experience, that act puts the rights of biological parents above these of the child. As a result, children are often left in abusive situations — my case — or returned to such situations — the case with many others.

Two girls came into my foster home with injuries rendering them unable to walk. But they were soon returned to their biological parents.

It was eerie watching them peel away in the back of a DHS car, as we knew they would be back. A few months later, they returned with new injuries, including a broken arm.

A court system charged with providing them with justice and protection failed to do so. These two little girls were victimized by the agency and system.

The audit documents just some of many Oregon’s foster care failings that demand addressing. And time is of the essence, as lives are on the line.
 

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