By CASEY CHAFFIN
According to data published by the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education in 2014, the percentage of 17 to 18 year old foster youth who want to go to college is 84 percent, but the percentage of foster youth who graduate high school and actually attend college is 20 percent, and the estimated percentage of former foster youth who actually attain a bachelor’s degree ranges from two to nine percent.
The message is quite clear: foster youth have the motivation to achieve more, but not the support system. The take-away for many who work in this system is: We can do better, and we need to do better. But to make that happen, there must be community buy-in even among those who aren’t currently fostering any children.
“Foster parents provide a community service. They are Marion County foster homes caring for Marion County children,” said Gwen Slippy, of the Marion County Child Welfare office, and as a result they need the support of those in the community to support that service. She added, “We want to partner with the community to meet the needs of children and families.”
Slippy curates resources to support foster families, because the responsibility for fostering falls on more shoulders than just those who currently open their homes to foster youth.
There are too many foster youth in the system and not enough adults to support them. This lack of engagement extends beyond actual foster parents, and into the support system that allows the foster system to function. Yet, foster parents and the Department of Human Services (DHS) cannot create the best environment for youth without the support of the community.
This mindset of DHS is a new one. Billy Cordero, director of the DHS GRACE grant, seeks to use data known about children in foster care to recruit foster parents that are tailored to specific needs. “It used to be we were an organization that said foster care or nothing and we’re trying to change that,” Cordero said.
Considering a youth who ends up in care is already steeped in extenuating life circumstances that impede their path to success, it’s important to acknowledge the ways the system can change a child’s life for the better, even if the situation is inherently not ideal.
Cordero experienced foster care as a young person, due in part to his parents’ drug addiction. Cordero and his siblings spent some time in what he calls “orphanage-style care,” followed by a stint on the streets, before he was placed with relatives. “They were dedicated to me and they loved me,” he said. That changed his life. It wasn’t ideal — being born into a safe, loving environment to begin with would be ideal. But being placed in a safe, loving foster home gave him a second chance at success.
After moving to Oregon from California to attend college, he learned “things don’t have to go the way the statistics say” for youth exiting care.
Shelly Winterberg, the director of field engagement for Every Child Oregon, an organization that seeks to serve as a launch-pad for people wanting to get involved in the foster care system in any capacity.
“We invite anyone and everyone to bring what they have to the table,” she said, whether that’s material resources, monetary resources or time. The Marion County chapter of Every Child is still in the process of being set up, but visit everychildoregon.org for updates.
Assist with Foster Parents’ Night Out
Burn out among foster parents is high, but burn out can be mitigated when they have the right support system, so they’re not doing it alone. Foster Parents’ Night Out (FPNO) is an organization dedicated to providing foster parents with a childcare break. Two FPNO chapters currently run in Marion County, based in the Salem Heights Church and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, both in Salem.
Billy Cordero, who in addition to working within DHS is an FPNO board member and coordinator of the Salem Heights Church FPNO chapter, said, “Sitting in a DHS seat, I’m very aware we can’t do everything to make families successful.”
Organizations such as FPNO have been created by the community to fill that gap and support local foster families. Once a month, a host organization puts together a night of dinner and entertainment for all children in a foster home, whether they’re foster kids or the family’s biological or adoptive children. For four hours a month, FPNO allows foster parents to do “whatever they need to do to take care of themselves,” Cordero said.
FPNO has been successful because the task of running the once-monthly events falls to the host organization, which is usually a church but can be a different organization, who provide the space, funding and volunteer power to make the program run.
Prior to participating in an FPNO event, organizer host a a three-hour volunteer orientation covering the basics of foster care, how to interact with kids who have suffered abuse and neglect, discuss what the purpose of FPNO is, and what expectations exist for volunteers.
Volunteers usually come from within the host organization, but unaffiliated community members can reach out to FPNO if they’re interested in getting involved with an existing chapter or starting their own. But the organization has other needs aside from volunteers, including donations and discounts on entertainment and catering. Local businesses and businesspeople who are willing to provide services to FPNO can reach out to the chapter they’d like to support directly.
For more information on FPNO and getting involved, visit fpno.org.
Become a special advocate
Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA volunteers, are meant to serve children who are often lost in a system that is overburdened and understaffed.
In a courtroom, where a child’s voice can often be lost among competing adults, a “CASA volunteer is the only person who is there because they want to see the child’s voice heard,” said Shaney Starr, executive director of Marion County’s branch of the CASA organization. CASAs are foster youth advocates who are trained and sworn in by a judge to serve a foster child. The duties of a CASA involve reviewing the information in a foster youth’s case, spending time with the child, interviewing caseworkers, foster families, biological relatives, and making recommendations to the court on a child’s case to ensure foster youth have the best outcomes.
CASAs may have different recommendations for the child’s welfare than caseworkers, lawyers or others party to a child’s case. Because CASAs report directly to the judge, and have an average caseload of two foster youth, their perspective on a case differs from others party to the case. While “respectful communication and professional interaction” between CASAs, DHS, and other parties is a priority, there are times when a CASA will make different recommendations to a judge about how the child’s emotional, medical, and educational needs are met.
CASAs must have “a belief that every child has a safe and permanent home where they can thrive and the willingness to see that through,” Starr said. For these reasons, being a CASA is a two-year commitment, and if the foster child’s case stays open longer, CASAs are encouraged to stick with that case.
CASAs provide oversight in a system that has come under fire for a lack thereof in recent years. Unfortunately, there are currently not enough CASAs for every foster child in Marion County. As of last count, there were about 130 Marion County CASAs and over 600 kids in care. At the currently number of foster youth in the system, the Marion County CASA branch needs an additional 75 CASAs in order to make sure every foster child has a CASA volunteer working on their case.
For more information on training and getting involved as a CASA, visit casamarionor.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 503-967-6420.
Volunteer with DHS
The Department of Human Services has a long list of material needs and service opportunities for those seeking involvement. Smaller scale material needs include toiletries, new clothing, gift cards, and safety equipment like fire extinguishers and carbon monoxide alarms, for foster parents to install in their homes and meet DHS requirements. New car seats are also on the high-need donation list for DHS.
Larger scale needs include DHS’s Adopt a Visitation Room program, where groups or organizations can sponsor a visitation area in the DHS office. Gwen Slippy, who oversees this program, said that group or organization “would come in and clean, replace toys, and decorate a room with a theme for family visits that take place at our office.”
For those who may not have the resources to donate materials, DHS also facilitates direct service opportunities, like volunteer transportation for youth to get to appointments, making a meal for a foster family, and office buddies, “who come and sit with children, in our office, while they are waiting for a placement – so workers are able to get time sensitive work done for the removal,” Slippy said. Volunteers of this type can help fill the personnel gap and allow DHS workers to be more effective at their jobs, while also making sure youth get the attention they need.
In addition to these ways of getting involved, DHS welcomes new ideas from the community. “If people have service project ideas, they are welcome to share them with me and we can see if it would be a good fit for the agency,” Slippy said.
To get involved in any of these initiatives or for a full list of DHS’s donation and volunteer needs, contact Slippy directly at GWENDOLYNN.L.SLIPPY@dhsoha.state.or.us