The 6 Things I’ve Learned About Foster Care in Oregon

Our readers sent in some great questions this month about Oregon’s foster care system, and I’ll be digging into them throughout the summer. 

For now, here’s an update on what I’ve learned:

1. First things first: what even is foster care? That’s not a stupid question. Sometimes foster care is a short-term arrangement for a kid whose parent is experiencing a medical emergency. Sometimes it’s a long-term thing following a parent’s death or incarceration. Often it’s a response to abuse or neglect.

In Oregon, most foster children are ultimately reunited with their biological families. But many aren’t. About 27 percent of children exit the foster system via adoption or guardianship, and nearly 2 percent stay in foster care until they turn 18. 

2. The challenges facing this system mainly fall into two categories: how/why kids are placed into foster care in the first place, and how they’re supported once in the system. 

To understand the placement problem, consider this week’s news from Pennsylvania, where a school district threatened to take kids from their families and put them into foster care because they owed lunch money. 

That’s an especially egregious example, but the broader problem is that poverty can often be misconstrued as child neglect, causing kids from poor families (and especially black and Native American families) to be admitted into foster care at disproportionate rates.

Earlier this year, OPB reported on a promising in-home treatment program that, if scaled up, could keep more kids with their birth families and out of foster care altogether. 

That would be a huge deal for Oregon, where our foster system serves nearly twice as many children as other states our size. 

But for now, the reality is that about 11,000 Oregon kids spend at least one day in the foster system each year and that leads to the question of how to support them.

3. Not all foster kids need the same level of care. On any given day, about 300 kids in our foster system receive one of the state’s highest levels of treatment: Behavioral Rehabilitation Services or Psychiatric Residential Treatment.

But there are thousands of other children who need less treatment for their trauma, and who can succeed with support from a foster family and a caseworker. 

4. The problem is that Oregon still isn’t fully equipped to support either group of children. A recent audit found that our state lacks about 150 residential treatment beds, causing many of our most vulnerable children to be sent to hotels, repurposed jails, or even facilities in other states.

Meanwhile, the state also has a shortage of caseworkers and foster families, and those problems compound on each other, according to the audit. 

For example, if a foster family doesn’t get enough support from their caseworker (because that caseworker is stretched too thin), they’re less likely to have a good experience and either accept another foster placement or recommend it to others.

5. The good news is we’re making some progress. The Oregon Legislature approved funds this session to hire about 350 new caseworkers, and they removed the requirement that caseworkers must have a bachelor’s degree, making it easier to fill open positions.

The state has also ended its policy of sending kids to out-of-state facilities, following reports of abuse and neglect.

And here in Portland, neighbors and community groups are stepping up as well, launching initiatives like this one to make a child’s first moments in the foster system a little more positive.

6. Still, one of the most urgent challenges is recruitment of foster families. Since 2011, the number of foster homes in Oregon has fallen by 15 percent, and despite a recent uptick, there’s a long way to go.

So next week, I’ll continue our series by digging into a question from reader Vanessa Holmgren: “What are the incentives for interested Oregonians to take in a foster child?”

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