Many Foster Parents in Oregon Don’t Feel Supported. Here’s the Plan to Fix That.

“How much help do foster parents (and institutional homes) get addressing emotional and social issues for the kids they care for?” —Alan Lehto

I’ve talked to foster parents, caseworkers, and policy wonks for this series, and the universal answer to that question is “not enough.”

But there’s a plan to turn that around — and it’s not just about hiring 347 more caseworkers across the state, which grabbed most of the headlines this spring.

In June, the Oregon Legislature also approved funding to expand a foster parent support program called KEEP, which has shown impressive results everywhere from New York City to Denmark.

The KEEP program was actually developed by the Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC) in Eugene, but it hasn’t been widely implemented in Oregon, until now.

Here’s what I learned about KEEP — and what it could mean for foster parents in our state.

The need for something new

Today, foster parents in Oregon only receive two types of formal support: a small stipend to offset the costs of raising a child, and a dedicated caseworker who’s responsible for ensuring the child’s safety.

Caseworkers are required to meet with their families at least once per month, and in a perfect world, they’d also have time to answer questions about the child’s specific needs, investigate after-school programs and other resources, and point parents to the best training opportunities.

But in reality, caseworkers are responsible for so many children at once that they often spend their time racing from one crisis to the next.

“They don’t have the bandwidth,” said Marissa Johnson, a child welfare policy expert with Foster Homes of Healing. “The level of emergency they’re seeing for some kiddos in their care is so overwhelming.”

The initiative to hire 347 new caseworkers around the state is expected to help fix that, by allowing caseworkers to work with fewer families at once and spend more time setting them up for success. 

But there’s a limit to how much support caseworkers can provide to parents. Ultimately, a caseworker’s legal responsibility is for the wellbeing of the child, and if a foster parent is ever accused of making a mistake, it’ll be the caseworker who’s tasked with investigating them.

That kind of relationship isn’t exactly the best foundation for trust and transparency, which is why Johnson and other reform advocates have been pushed for an evidence-based training and support program like KEEP. 

“We would like to see every foster family across the state receive this support,” she said. “It’s what foster families say they need, and it’s what the [Secretary of State’s] audit said they need.”

What KEEP will mean for Oregon 

Designed in 2000, KEEP is a 16-week program where foster parents can talk through challenges and questions with a trained facilitator and a group of peers.

Research studies have consistently shown that KEEP improves retention of foster parents, which in turn creates more stability for foster children. But despite its success in New York City, Baltimore, and Tennessee, Oregon has been slow to adopt the model beyond a couple pilot projects.

Now that’s about to change, thanks to nearly $7 million in state and federal funding that was approved this spring. 

OSLC science director Patricia Chamberlain says her team’s “ambitious” goal is to make KEEP available to all foster parents across the state within two years. 

The program is voluntary, but OSLC will provide dinner, childcare, and even a $20 stipend to help encourage participation. And the state’s funding package includes specific resources for parent recruitment. 

That’s part of the model,” Chamberlain said. “We build in a lot of incentives to have them come.”

So how will we know if the program is working?

Over time, other cities and states with a KEEP program have seen fewer foster parents leave the system, fewer children bounce around between multiple placements, and more foster children reunited with their biological parents. 

It’ll be a few years until the state has enough data to measure those outcomes, but for the first time in a while, there at least seems to be a sense of cautious optimism around foster parenting in Oregon.

“Now is a really great and hopeful time to come into the system,” Johnson said. “The pieces are starting to finally align.”