The number of children in foster care has decreased across Oregon, but there still is a need for certified foster homes.

“We have fewer children in foster care than we have in years, but we’re always looking for more resource families,” said Tammie Blessing.

Blessing works for the Oregon Department of Human Services. She is the resource family retention and recruitment champion for District 13, which includes Baker, Union and Wallowa counties.

“Resource family” and “resource parents” are the new terms describing a foster family and foster parents.

On average, Oregon has about 6,000 children in foster care. On April 1, that number was 5,975.

In March, there were 40 children in certified foster homes across Baker, Union and Wallowa counties.

“Baker County has a high rate of abuse and neglect, per capita, compared to other places,” Blessing said.

In Oregon, the DHS Child Welfare Director Rebecca Jones Gaston has released a “Vision for Transformation.” The document is about 25 pages and is online at www.oregon.gov/dhs/CHILDREN/CWTransformation/Pages/index.aspx.

Blessing points to the highlights of the document, which include the goal of preserving families and keeping children in their home as long as it is safe.

When children can’t remain at home, the first step is to seek placement with other relatives.

In District 13, Blessing said, “the majority of children in foster care are placed with family.”

If blood-related family can’t be located, the next step is to find extended close friends who already have a relationship with the child or children.

“It’s really important that we do everything we can to maintain a child’s connection to their family, culture and community,” she said. “That’s why we’re really trying to place children with people they know and have relationships with.”

It’s not always possible to place children with family or friends. In those cases, DHS relies on general application resource families.

Oregon DHS hired employees this year to work on recruitment and retention of foster families.

“We still have a need for those times when we can’t find family or friends who are able to be a resource for the child and their family,” Blessing said.

When a child is placed with a general resource family, Blessing said the caseworker continues to search for a potential placement with family or friends.

Children are kept in their home community when possible.

“Their school remains the same and their social connections remain the same so that they can keep their connections to their culture and community,” Blessing said.

To help, she said, more general application families are needed in all three counties.

Other goals of the Vision for Transformation are to limit time children spend in the foster care system, provide support to families, and ensure children are placed in “culturally appropriate homes.”

Pandemic problems

A challenge to resource families is finding child care for foster children when both parents are working. Blessing said Baker, Union and Wallowa counties are considered “child care deserts,” which means there are too few child care spots available for the number of kids who need them.

The COVID-19 pandemic added to the challenge. In addition to the lack of child care, parents also faced education moving to an online platform.

“That’s been a real hardship,” Blessing said.

The pandemic necessitated special guidelines for children in foster care. For example, if a resource family traveled out of state, their foster child could not go with them and instead went to respite care. After returning, the family had to quarantine before the child returned.

Visitations with birth parents changed too — some were virtual, and some were in-person with face coverings.

“It’s posed another layer of challenges,” Blessing said of the pandemic. “It has undoubtably been an extra stressor on foster families.”

Recruitment

Although the goal is to place children with family or close friends, resource parents and families are necessary when that isn’t an option. Blessing said homes are especially needed for children with high needs.

“Certifiers spend a lot of time to figure out who is going to be a good match to support a child and their individual needs,” Blessing said.

She said DHS also is recruiting families who would welcome older children. Teenagers, she said, need a caring home, especially one that helps prepare them for adulthood.

“We have recruitment needs around older children,” she said. “A lot of families who come forward want to support younger children and that’s great. But we also need people to step up to provide a loving and supportive environment to older children and teenagers.”

Another need is to have certified families for children who identify as LGBTQIA+.

“Sometimes a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity are the very thing that brings them into care,” she said. “It’s really important that we’re able to find resource families that will accept and support LGBTQIA+ children in our community.”

Families interested in learning more about foster care can go to everychildoregon.org. Inquiries through that site also alert DHS staff.

“You can learn more about foster care, and get your questions answered,” Blessing said.

Those not quite ready to foster children can volunteer in other capacities.

“What we’re finding is people who start in the exploring stage, many of those families eventually become certified.”

DHS “champions” such as Blessing are working to recruit and retain foster families.

The goal, she said, is to have enough families for “good placement matching — so it’s a good fit for everyone.”

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