Foster kids find solace inside system

This is the second story in an ongoing series about foster care in Washington County. Next week: The Nussers of Banks, a first-time foster family.
by: Nancy Townsley, Social worker Catherine Chase connects children with foster families in Washington County.

For Scott Noon, working inside Washington County's foster care system is a highly personal thing.

Hundreds of children have been placed in safe - if temporary - homes during the 16 years Noon has been employed by the Department of Health and Human Services, most recently as adoption and foster care supervisor in the Hillsboro office.

Like many of the children who find their way into the child welfare system, Noon himself once lived in an abusive home.

'I'm in my 40s now, but as a child I did suffer abuse,' said Noon, who oversees the foster home certification process in western Washington County.

That was back in the 1960s, when 'the system wasn't working so well,' Noon recalled.

While today's system isn't perfect, he believes it serves a critical purpose in the lives of children whose homes have become dangerous or unhealthy places to stay.

'I think the government has a role to fulfill in making sure children have a secure and happy place to call home,' said Noon, who lives in Hillsboro.

DHS' child abuse hotline regularly receives reports from community members or the local police department about potentially unsafe situations and is obligated to investigate their concerns.

Sometimes the reports are unfounded, but more often, there are reasons to assign a case to protective services.

Every week, Noon's office gets emergency requests for foster home placements for children who have been removed from their homes due to neglect or abuse.

'It's a fairly constant thing,' he said.

Noon swings into action, sending out one of six certifiers to visit with prospective foster parents and assess their home's appropriateness for youngsters who, for one reason or another, can no longer live with their mom or dad.

Foster parent applicants are screened for criminal history, previous experience with the foster care system and a long checklist of other prerequisites, including solid references. They take 24 hours-worth of training through the county and, once certified, their home is re-assessed annually, said Nicole Hall, foster parent recruiter.

Two-thirds of the county's foster homes are headed by a relative or friend of the child who is eventually placed there, Hall noted.

'These are people who've had a previous significant relationship with the child,' said Hall, who lives in Hillsboro. 'That is by far the best situation next to returning the child to their parents, which is always our goal.'

Hall's position was created 18 months ago to help fill a widening gap in the county between the number of children needing foster care and the number of homes available.

She has been busy creating public relations materials aimed at bolstering support for the children and drumming up newly certified foster homes.

'We're focusing on foster parent recruitment because kids are staying in foster care longer,' said Hall.

As the county's methamphetamine problem has grown, so has the average length of time children are logged in to the foster care system, she said.

'We have a pretty high percentage of our cases that involve drug abuse,' noted Hall. 'There's a dynamic with meth that's different than chronic alcohol abuse.

'Parents of very small children are tweaking and crashing (getting high and then sleeping it off) for days,' Hall said. 'They're unable to care for their kids.'

While mom and dad work at getting off the drug and staying clean, their kids remain in protective custody.

That's where folks like Noon and Hall step in - and a small army of social workers steps up.

Freshly removed from their homes, children arrive at the county's 'intake room' on Northeast Ray Circle in Hillsboro. The older ones play Nintendo and the younger ones play with blocks and puzzles while waiting to find out where they're going next.

They're often confused, angry and scared, because they've left behind familiar toys, clothing and, sometimes, their siblings.

For them, the emotional safety net - even with its gaping holes - is gone.

'My work is heartbreaking and rewarding, all at the same time,' Noon said.

Situations that prompt social workers to remove children from their parents' homes range from filthy conditions to drug use to physical and sexual abuse, said Catherine Chase, Noon's counterpart in DHS' Beaverton office.

'These children are immediate safety risks,' said Chase, a mother of two.

'Our biggest category is 'threat of harm' - that covers everything from exposure to drugs to domestic violence,' Chase said.

Displaced infants, toddlers, children and teens come through child welfare's front door because the conditions inside their home of origin are unhealthy or unsafe.

Right now, Chase said, there are approximately 1,000 infants, children and teenagers in the county's foster care system.

'The number is pretty fluid - it changes daily,' she noted. 'Our goal is always to find a way for a child to remain in or return to their own home.

'Unfortunately, that isn't always possible.'

Chase and Noon attempt to keep foster 'sibling groups' together, something that isn't always easy.

'I recently had one sibling group of five - the oldest was 17 and the youngest was two months old,' said Chase. 'Keeping them together was really challenging.'

Workers also try to minimize the number of moves a child must make while in the system, even if the time stretches from months to years.

'It's so important for them to have some consistency, even if it's just keeping them in the school they're used to,' said Chase.

It isn't the end of the road once a teen turns 18. There are classes and mentoring relationships available to help formerly fostered kids get on their adult-sized feet.

DHS' Independent Living Program for ages 14 and over teaches basic skills, such as how to do laundry, balance a checkbook, cook nutritious meals and attend to personal hygiene.

ILP mentors can help them write a resume, prepare for a job interview and secure an apartment.

Judy Klefman, DHS' tri-county independent living liaison, connects foster teens with the continuing education they need to live on their own.

'Families sometimes are safe enough for teens to return to, but they may not be strong enough to provide what the child needs,' Klefman observed. 'We help fill that gap.'