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Where will all the children go?

Plagued by a meth epidemic, Washington County's foster family 'bench' is nearly depleted, causing some to take in too many kids

This is the first story in a series about foster care for children in Washington County.

Next week: A snapshot of the county's child welfare system itself.

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 system, a program of the child welfare division.

Because of a severe 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, José and Antonia, are very much alive. The family lives in Tigard, where Joséis 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 schools they're used to,' 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.'

Home numbers low

in Forest Grove

In Forest Grove, 55 children were removed from their parents' homes because of safety concerns between September 2004 and September 2005, the last year for which the child welfare division has statistics, Hall said.

That same year, there were only 15 regular, available foster homes in the city.

With dozens of children - infants on up to age 18 - awaiting placement in foster homes, the situation is 'at a crisis level' locally, she said.

'Forest Grove is low for the number of foster homes we'd like to have,' said Hall. 'We're at a point right now where sometimes we're overloading the foster homes we have.'

The county human services organization does not have a goal for 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.

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.

Sometimes a relative will show up to care for them, or the foster arrangement 'just doesn't work out for some reason,' Hall noted. Still, the agency strives for stability.

'Moves hurt kids, bottom line,' said Hall. '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.'

Typically, a two-parent foster home is allowed to care for up to eight children - including their own - at a time. Homes with one parent can care for up to five children at a time.

It's sometimes a long road between DHS stepping in and a child's placement in a foster home. Children are removed from their parents' homes for a number of reasons, all pointing to safety concerns, she said.

With more children in the foster-care system, 'kids are staying longer in foster care,' Hall 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, with a goal of eventually living on their own.

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

Nancy Townsley of the News-Times contributed to this story.