After a 2018 audit of Oregon’s foster care system, which revealed an agency in crisis, OPB’s “Think Out Loud” began a series of interviews to understand more about the problems and who is affected by them. We talked to parents, children, caseworkers and others about their experiences with the system. The problems are complex, interrelated and large: Oregon has a significantly higher number of kids in foster care, compared with the national average.

We wondered: Who’s doing child welfare better?

A grant from the Solutions Journalism Network, a national nonprofit focused on reporting on responses to social problems, allowed us to travel to Tennessee, where the number of children in foster care per capita is nearly half of Oregon’s. One of the reasons for those lower rates is a nonprofit called Youth Villages, founded by Patrick Lawler.

Patrick Lawler is the founder and CEO of Youth Villages in Memphis, Tennessee.

Patrick Lawler is the founder and CEO of Youth Villages in Memphis, Tennessee.

Allison Frost/OPB

The organization contracts with the state to serve biological and adoptive families to keep kids out of foster care, providing what’s known in the parlance of child welfare as “permanence.” Lawler said the organization didn’t start out focused on providing in-home services, but they studied the outcomes and found taking kids out of their homes just didn’t result in positive outcomes. 

Read More: What Oregon Can Learn From Tennessee’s Child Welfare Approach

“I’ve talked to a lot of people now who really do seem to be aligned with that philosophy who have come to believe that the families do a better job taking care of the kids — with the proper tools — than the state does,” Lawler said.

Youth Villages now operates in 15 states, including Oregon. In this state, the chapter serves just 25 kids and families through the Department of Human Services. An estimated 300 more are served through the Oregon Health Authority’s contract with the nonprofit’s Oregon chapter.

Youth Villages Intercept Program

Youth Villages has two main programs: Intercept and Lifeset. In the Intercept program, one Youth Villages specialist is assigned to a family and visits the home for several months, about three times a week. On a visit to Tennessee (in a town called Portland, outside of Nashville) we met Christina Walker, a single mother with a son at home, who adopted her daughter, Olivia, after first becoming her foster mother.

Christina Walker with her son, Evan, and her daughter, Olivia, in their Portland, Tennessee, home. Walker fostered Olivia for two years before the adoption, and worked through a number of serious behavior issues with the help of Youth Village's Intercept program.

Christina Walker with her son, Evan, and her daughter, Olivia, in their Portland, Tennessee, home. Walker fostered Olivia for two years before the adoption, and worked through a number of serious behavior issues with the help of Youth Village’s Intercept program.

Allison Frost/OPB

Walker told us that after she adopted Olivia permanently, she began to question the decision when Olivia started to exhibit extreme and disruptive behavior including extended bouts of screaming, tantrums and frequent lying. Walker says she was reluctant to admit she needed help but so grateful she took a leap of faith and accepted the Youth Villages referral that the state caseworker gave her. “It literally did save my adoption,” she says.

In Oregon, we spoke to a mother of two adopted daughters, one from the foster care system. Wendy Warren said the Youth Villages Intercept program specialist who got assigned to their family had a very tough job.

Wendy Warren has two daughters from adoption, one from the Oregon foster care system. The family used Youth Villages Intercept program, and credits it with helping them through a severe crisis. 

Wendy Warren has two daughters from adoption, one from the Oregon foster care system. The family used Youth Villages Intercept program, and credits it with helping them through a severe crisis. 

Allison Frost/OPB

Warren said she even told Andi, the specialist, that she would understand if she wanted to quit since her daughter was routinely hostile or uncooperative.

“It was challenging because our older daughter likened therapy to being a beehive and having somebody stick their hand in to get the honey …  she resented Andi coming, and she was tough on Andi. She was very tough on Andi.”

But Warren says Andi kept coming back, working with the family on how the effects of trauma can be faced. 

“I was able eventually to accept that this thing that brought me my greatest joy — adoption — was also, necessarily, the source of my daughter’s greatest pain.”

Warren says now her daughters are thriving. She doesn’t know how she, her husband and their two daughters would have survived this crisis otherwise.

Youth Villages Lifeset Program

Youth Villages Lifeset program supports youth who are transitioning out of the foster care system to help them with the skills and resources they need to live on their own. Raygan Bean, a freshman at Middle Tennessee State University, had nine placements in the foster care system after being removed from her mother’s care. She’s had a lot of people in an out of her life — but no one like her Lifeset specialist, Caroline Myers. Bean says it if it weren’t for Myers, she may have never applied to college, let alone the help she needed to be successful here.

Former foster youth Raygan Bean started her freshman year at Middle Tennessee State University, with help from the Youth Villages Lifeset program.

Former foster youth Raygan Bean started her freshman year at Middle Tennessee State University, with help from the Youth Villages Lifeset program.

Allison Frost/OPB

She’s deeply grateful for the Lifeset program, but if she had been given the option for help a decade earlier — like the Youth Villages Intercept program that may have enabled her to stay in her mother’s custody — she would have taken it in a heartbeat.

“I would have loved that because my mom, she’s an amazing person does amazing things for anybody,” Bean said. “So …  if we would have just been able to have the therapists and the counseling together — gosh, I wish that would have happened. I wish Youth Villages would have been involved back then. Yeah, for sure.”

Torrey Brunot with her Youth Villages Lifeset specialst, Ariel Ford, March 2019, at OPB.

Torrey Brunot with her Youth Villages Lifeset specialst, Ariel Ford, March 2019, at OPB.

Allison Frost/OPB

Torrey Brunot is Portland State University sophomore, but she didn’t necessarily think she would ever get to college. She had a chaotic childhood bouncing between divorced parents and was living with her stepmother and father in southern Oregon before she was removed from the home, along with the other children in the family. Brunot says her Lifeset worker, Ariel Ford, helped her in invaluable ways, including dealing with her anxiety.

“When I first met Ariel I had panic attacks every day … and now … if I have a panic attack, I’m able to calm myself down,” Brunot said, “and Ariel has helped teach me how to talk to myself.”

Oregon’s 2019 legislative session is still underway, and lawmakers are considering a number of different bills to reform the state’s system. The federal Family First legislation will make an impact nationwide, and Oregon is among the states scrambling to prepare for the law’s changes.

The new law will change what kind of care the federal government will reimburse states for. It also puts limits on how long children can be in group homes and will allow money that was previously off limits to be spent on youth over 18 years old.

Editor’s note (April 11, 8:45 a.m. PT): This article was changed to reflect that the measures of rates of removal are different from the number of children in foster care per capita.