East Portland Journal - Dec. 22

Christmas party gives torn-apart families joy and glimpses of hope
by: David Ashton, At the Department of Human Services Christmas Party, Joel successfully fishes for a teddy bear, with the help of his dad Joey, Sue and Department of Human Services worker Sarah Lee.

Beneath the fairytale image of a toys-and-tinsel Christmas depicted in the advertisements, there lies a dark and often confusing world where kids who've been taken into protective custody live.

'There has to be severe risk involved for children to be taken into protective custody,' says Mary Boehme, a Department of Human Services (DHS) child welfare caseworker at the East Multnomah County branch office, which serves Outer East Portland and Rockwood. 'It happens, if there is a genuine concern about the child's safety.'

Law enforcement officials like to remind people that many methamphetamine addicts are also parents.

'But there are many different drug addictions that cause parents to neglect their children and not give them the care they need. Domestic violence and mental health issues are also things that hinder a family from staying together,' Boehme says.

The parent or parents are given up to a year, Boehme says, in which to remedy their situation and get their lives in order.

'Oftentimes, these parents are thankful for the DHS process that helps them turn their lives around. This process includes parenting classes, drug and alcohol treatment, counseling, and maintaining a stable residence and job so they can support their child.

'If one or both of the parents have been involved in the criminal justice system, they also need to abide by the conditions of their release,' Boehme says.

Party brings delight, and anticipation

On Tuesday, Dec. 18, both kids and adults streamed into an office building with no sign, set back in a large strip mall on Southeast 122nd Avenue, to attend a Christmas Party put on by department caseworkers.

The children, if they are not in the care of a family member, have been staying with a foster-care family. The adults invited to the party are parents who have dedicated themselves to changing their lives and getting their families back together.

'For parents who are working through the DHS process,' Boehme says, 'it gives them a glimpse of what could be when they complete their program and are reunited with their children. If they are engaged in the process, they welcome the opportunity to have some kind of engagement with their child.'

And, by the looks on their faces, the children love the event from the moment they enter.

Meeting and counseling rooms offer of crafts and games in which all the kids are winners. And, in a special room, the youngsters get to have a one-on-one meeting with jolly Santa Claus himself.

'A lot of these kids don't have any good Christmas memories - like making cookies, playing games, getting new gifts and seeing Santa,' Boehme says.

Pizza feast caps event

Caseworker Stacey Mahler waits in a large room, deep in the office complex, that has been turned into a holiday luncheon café.

Looking at the smiling, giggling children pouring in, Mahler says, 'These kids have a lot of disruptions in their lives. Events like this provide the setting for a positive visit with their mother, father or siblings - sometimes kids are sent to different foster homes.

'We have fun activities to do. It gives back to them when most of it is unpleasant and negative stuff. When they get here they have a good time together.'

Community pitches in

Kids make a beeline to the hot, bubbling pizza provided by Bill Dayton's Pizza Baron, just up the street. Their eyes light up as they see the 'Dot Cakes' provided by Saint Cupcake.

Both parents and children take home more than memories.

Caricature artist, Sam Arneson, draws 'toon pictures of the kids for their parents. For the youngsters, Christmas comes early in the form of all kinds of toys - ranging from plush animals to bicycles.

'What makes this possible is the generosity of businesses and organizations in our community,' Mahler says.

The major sponsors included Pizza Baron; Safeway on Southeast 122nd Avenue at Powell Boulevard; N.W. Priority Credit Union; Ace Hardware on Southeast 122nd Avenue at Division; Saint Cupcake; OnPoint Credit Union; The Vance Foundation; Portland Winter Hawks; FGG Inc.; and Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 290, which made a grant of $1,000.

Also, thank you for volunteering

On behalf of Portland Police East Precinct Commander Michael Crebs, we'd like to thank the dozens of Outlook readers who delivered Sunshine Division food boxes on Dec. 15. Your help brightened the holidays for hundreds of less fortunate folks in outer East Portland.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas!