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Local foster-care system splitting at seams

Meth use and other factors have created a crisis resulting in too few homes for too many children
by: Jaime Valdez, ACTING SAD — Miguel Vergara, 5, and his sister Linda, 8, have a good home in Tigard with their parents Jose and Antonia, but the siblings, who sometimes act on the side, recently portrayed kids in the Washington County foster-care system for a video promoting foster-parent sign-ups. Actors are used because children in the foster-care program cannot be photographed for publicity purposes.

HILLSBORO - The parents of Juanita, 8, and Pablo, 5, are dead, and their grandmother is too old and sick to care for them. They have lost their home, and all they have is each other.

The sister and brother are entering the Washington County Department of Human Services foster-care program, but because of the shortage of foster-care parents, they could be separated. Even if they are kept together, they may have to go live with foster parents outside their school district and change schools, leaving their friends and classmates behind.

Luckily, 'Juanita' and 'Pablo' in reality are Linda and Miguel Vergara, and their parents, Jose and Antonia, are very much alive. The family lives in Tigard, where Jose is a custodian at Twality Middle School, and the kids do some acting on the side when they aren't attending Templeton Elementary.

Reid Iford Television recently filmed a video promoting foster-care parent signups in the county and tapped Linda and Miguel to play the role of kids in the child-welfare program.

While the kids pictured in the video might not be real, the crisis is here and growing, according to Nicole Hall, county child-welfare foster-parent recruiter.

'We have about 1,000 children in foster care in Washington County, and there are not enough homes to keep them in the same schools,' Hall said. 'They are separated from their siblings. We are trying to raise awareness of this situation and have come up with a recruiting campaign to spread the word.'

The organization does not have a goal of how many foster parents to recruit, according to Hall.

'Even one is helpful,' she said. 'People can be married, single, with children or without children.'

The process of becoming a foster parent is fairly simple. The first step is to attend one of the monthly information meetings, and if interested, sign up for the 24 hours of training, which may be offered in eight- or four-week series or even an upcoming power weekend in August.

Topics included in the training include child development, behavior management, valuing a child's heritage and working with the child's family.

Naturally, there are a lot of forms to fill out, including such information as the age of the children would-be foster parents are interested in caring for. 'They choose who they want,' Hall said.

'The first class talks about what might disqualify people and other information,' she added. 'There are background checks and references - there's lots of checking. Our agency is liable for the children, and people must meet our safety and security standards.'

Most people who begin the process qualify to be foster parents, and once certified, they are ready to receive children.

The kids who end up in the system have nowhere else to go, according to Hall.

The agency first tries to place the children with other family members while their parents 'get their act together,' Hall said. 'Sometimes they don't, and the foster parents turn into adoptive parents.'

The DHS tries to provide a stable life for children in foster care. 'and if things are going smoothly, they don't move,' Hall said. 'But sometimes a relative will show up to care for them, or it just doesn't work out for some reason. Moves hurt kids, bottom line. The ideal is to find a home where the kids stay until they return home.

'But now, because of the shortage of foster parents, instead of the ideal placement, we are putting children in homes with more children and where they will go to different schools.'

According to Hall, methamphetamine use is an underlying cause of the rise in children in the foster-care system, 'and kids are staying longer in foster care,' she said.

The system cares for children from birth to age 18, but the older ones aren't turned out onto the street if they have no place to go. Teenagers age 14 and older can volunteer to enter an independent-living program to prepare for eventually living on their own.

'We try to prepare them, and we work with them afterwards,' Hall said.

For those hesitant to try foster-parenting, Hall admits that it can be a tough job, 'but there are so many rewards,' she added.

'They can outweigh some of the difficulties. Foster-care parents have an opportunity to provide a stable, safe place for children in need. These relationships may last a lifetime. Sometimes the foster parents and birth parents work together on what is best for the children.

'Foster parents have many opportunities to help their community. They are our heroes. What they are giving children is life-long. They are helping these children and their families. It's a huge job, but these are people who can't turn their backs on children in need. Our need is in every city in Washington County.'

For more information or to schedule informational presentations at churches, businesses, schools and other places, call Hall at 503-681-7242.