Oregon's child welfare system faced a number of serious challenges well before the coronavirus pandemic hit, but with Gov. Kate Brown's stay-at-home order in effect now, schools are closed, caseworker home visits are nearly shut down, and many of the state's foster parents and foster children find themselves in need of more help than ever.
In response, the state's new My Neighbor program aims to provide immediate support for foster families – by connecting them to people in their own neighborhoods. The Department of Human Services partnered with nonprofit Every Child to launch the My Neighbor program after hearing stories of foster families facing new challenges created by the need to stay home, said Ben Sand, CEO of Every Child.
Since launching My Neighbor last week, the program has received requests from 260 families and foster children – and it’s connected 189 of those requests to people willing to help, Sand told OPB's "Think Out Loud."
“We have seen generosity from Oregonians unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” he said. “What we’re seeing is a tremendous response from Oregonians who say, ‘I want to care for my neighbor. I want to do something to channel all this energy that I’m feeling into something good.’”
Rebecca Jones Gaston, child welfare director at DHS, said the challenges that foster families are facing will sound familiar to many people in the state.
“They may have been laid of from work, they may have been asked to suddenly work remotely, and now children aren’t in schools,” Jones Gaston said. “And so foster families are caring for children who have gone through oftentimes traumatic experiencing and are now suddenly with them all day long for seven days a week, 24 hours a day, without breaks.”
Sand described a typical example of the support My Neighbor can offer these foster families:
“We received an inquiry from a family that said they were in need of diapers and wipes and some basic necessities, like eggs and milk, and they were unable to leave their home because they are serving a child who is medically fragile,” he said. “When that need comes in, we automatically see it, and we’re able to generate Oregonians in that community to step forward, to go grocery shopping and to meet that need.”
Child welfare leaders have committed to continuing the My Neighbor program for at least three months. But Sand said the effort to connect foster families to the community around them could well extend for far longer, based on the results it gets.
“We’re in wave one, and we don’t know how many waves are coming,” he said.
As child welfare workers seek to build these community-based networks to support foster families during an unprecedented pandemic, they still must contend with challenges that they’ve faced since long before COVID-19 – including identifying child abuse and neglect, and finding foster homes for children in need.
The coronavirus has created challenges for those abuse investigations – which are often triggered by reports made my teachers or other school employees.
The state's child abuse hotline has seen a dramatic drop in calls, from 700 per day to fewer than 300 per day, now that teachers are no longer directly observing students every weekday, Jones Gaston said.
“We’ve been working with the Department of Education around some possible guiding questions and things that teachers can just be aware of,” Jones Gaston said. She also said that this is a moment when it’s critical for community members and neighbors to be attentive and alert to possible signs of abuse.
Child abuse investigations, including in-home visits, are continuing across Oregon, and have not been halted by the governor’s “stay home” order, Jones Gaston said. “In the instance where child safety is a concern, we are continuing to have to do the hard work of child protection and sometimes make decisions around whether or not a child can remain at home or needs to be placed in a foster home.
Oregon has seen a substantial increase in families expressing interest in housing children over the past year, dating to before the coronavirus outbreak, Sand said – and recruitment efforts continue.
“We have four full-time employees right now that are spending all day calling families across Oregon, asking them to step into foster care,” he said. The details of how new families will be trained and brought into foster care programs are still being worked out. “We’re going to have to think outside the box – and we are – about how to get those families that are saying yes trained and ready to care for kids, when a child is needing care.”