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Foster care: the challenge of permanency

Trends point to shortage in non-family foster care homes


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Olivia Garrett, 18 months, toddles past pinwheels set up to represent Columbia County children in the foster care system at an event sponsored by CASA for Kids and the Amani Center April 17.At this moment in Columbia County, a child who is removed from his or her home due to abuse or neglect, and who does not have a capable relative willing to step in and serve as a foster parent, can expect to be moved out of the county — often to a new school district, a house full of strangers and a location removed from friends and family.

It’s a mounting challenge for child welfare caseworkers in Columbia County who are seeing a sharp rise in the number of children who need to be placed in foster care and a decline in households willing to offer a place for those children to stay, both short and long term.

“It is happening all over. It is not necessarily unique to Columbia County,” said Bruce Lofland, supervisor of the Child Welfare Program in Oregon Department of Human Services’ District 1, which includes Columbia County. “What makes Columbia County different, or unique, is if we needed a placement today for a child in Columbia County, in a non-relative home, we have no vacancies. Literally none. For any age.”

Lofland estimates there are as many as 15 children from Columbia County right now in the state foster care system who have been placed in non-relative homes outside of the county.

Four years ago, he says, there were close to 125 foster care homes in the county. Since then, the number has dropped to 104 homes. At the same time, the number of foster care children has increased 50-60 percent, he says.

In 2011 — the most recent year for which information is available — 190 children spent from Columbia County spent at least one night in foster care, according to DHS data.

Establishing a degree of permanence for a child entering foster care plays a significant role, researchers say, in how that child develops. In fact, pages of scholarly reports, many available through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and DHS, are devoted to the challenges of establishing and maintaining permanency for foster care children.

“The research says the kids are more successful if they are able to be placed in their community,” Lofland says.

Children who remain in foster care beyond one year are likely to go through several moves from home to home. Studies also show that children who lack permanency can expect lowered test scores, higher school absenteeism and increased dropout rates. For those children who age-out — or are emancipated — from the foster care system, the outcomes are grimmer; statistics indicate an increased likelihood for underemployment, mental health issues and criminal activity.

Those scenarios match the assessment of Lindsey King, who has experienced foster care as both a participant and a child advocate.

From the inside

King entered Oregon’s foster care system when she was 1 year old.

Her mother, she explains, never really wanted to be a mother. Instead, she abused drugs and stumbled her way through instable relationships.

“I know I have one brother out there somewhere. Maybe more,” King says.

Her first foster care experience would not be her last. She spent the next decade in a blur, moving in and out of foster homes 27 times before she was finally adopted at age 11.

At one point, King, now 37 and a program manager for CASA for Kids in Columbia County, went to school dressed in every article of clothing she owned, an act reflecting the lack of permanence and the uncertainty with her home life.

“There wasn’t any permanency,” she says. Her clothes, she says, were her only true belongings. She also used to hide in the bathrooms at her school because she didn’t want to go home out of fear it would be time, again, to pack up and leave. She had seen her fair share of the life’s underbelly, too, including physical, mental and sexual abuse.

She says she developed a fight-or-flight response at an early age and, in retrospect, recognizes there were many chances to slip into the judicial system.

“It only takes one person to be a good mentor or make a huge difference in that child’s life, to impact them to do positive things,” she says. For King, she found that in one foster parent, in a CASA volunteer and, ultimately, in her adopted parents.

Resource challenges

King’s early experiences are ones the Oregon Department of Human Services would like to eliminate, having devoted the last few years toward building networks in which a family relative provides a foster home for children.

In that sense, Lofland says, DHS’ focus on placing children with family members, either in or out of the county, is working.

“Quite frankly, we’ve been successful in keeping kids who can’t be with their parents with their relatives,” he says.

Still, DHS funding cuts, Lofland says, have limited the agency’s ability to focus on other aspects of the foster care system, including recruitment for non-family foster care households and, even in the case of willing participants, the resources available to train them.

“At this point in time, we’ve had to put a hold on training,” he says. He says he’s hopeful the Legislature in its current session could restore some of those cuts.

To that extent, cuts in other social services, such as substance abuse and outreach programs, have increased the variables leading to unstable households and, hence, a higher probability for children entering foster care.

Kathryn Bourn, director for CASA for Kids in Columbia County, says she has seen an overall decline in volunteers for court-appointed advocates, too, and had to delay a spring training course because there were too few students willing to commit to the program.

CASA volunteers serve as advocates for foster children, giving children who are going through difficult transition a voice in everything from court actions to whether or not they are satisfied with their foster care arrangements.

Bourn cites Columbia County’s economy and workforce statistics, including a commute rate of 70 percent of residents working outside the county, as one suspect for why volunteerism for CASA or to serve as a foster household has dropped off. People simply don’t have the time to make a commitment.

“That presents a challenge,” she says.

Lofland echoes that sentiment, pointing to the early results from a recent survey indicating more households would consider foster care if there were available respite care programs to give them the occasional break.

Another hard fact, Bourn points out, is that more children are entering foster care, the products of a swelling tide of abusive and neglectful parents. About half of the households in which foster children originate, she says, have at least one substance-abusing adult. And, increasingly, there has been a rise of child sexual abuse.

“There are children going into foster care at such a young age, because they have been removed from parents’ custody, that they don’t even have a name on their birth certificate,” she says.