CASA director: Foster care for children in short supply in county

Audrey Caro Gomez

There is a lack of foster parents and a lack of residential care for children with high needs in Linn County, Hilary Harrison, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates, told county commissioners last week.

CASA is an organization that trains volunteers to advocate for children who have been abused and are in foster care.

“We have a number of children sitting in inappropriate placements, as far as we’re concerned, around the county,” Harrison said at the commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, July 19. “So we have kids at high levels of care who we can’t step down because we don’t have foster homes for them and then we have some children in lower levels of care who could do with a stay somewhere else to just get some more supports.

“So that’s the crisis that we’re facing and that’s a crisis in the mental health system in the developmental disability system and for DHS for child welfare.”

Harrison said in the last two months, her agency dealt with a case in which a child lived in a hotel for five weeks while he waited for foster placement.

“He ended up being placed out of state,” Harrison said. “His is probably, perhaps, the worst of the stories we could tell right now of the crisis that we’ve faced.”

He was sent out of state because more local foster parents were not available.

Commissioner Will Tucker said he had heard of overnights at the Department of Human Services but not of weeks in a hotel room. He asked whether a DHS worker stayed with the child.

There were, Harrison confirmed.

“We’ve run from several days to the maximum being five weeks,” Harrison said. “Jackson Street Youth Shelter has stepped up and has some contracts so the problem is partly being hidden by people going to Jackson Street.”

If a child is unable to maintain at Jackson Street, the other option is to “hotel” them.

“We’ve created a new verb,” Harrison said.

The process is expensive because two workers must accompany the child at all times.

“They make sure they provide them with things, but can you imagine living for five weeks in a hotel room if you were 10?” Harrison asked.

The residential care crisis is worsening – DHS shut down a facility in Portland and gave a 30-day-notice to Chehalem Youth and Family Services Behavior Rehabilitative Services in Newberg.

Two children from Linn County are currently at Chehalem.

Harrison said the good news is that they are able to provide CASA volunteers for most of these children.

“We’re at a stage where our waitlist is only 50 children,” Harrison said. “Which sounds like a lot, but it is a lot lower than it was.”

It recently has been well over 100, Tucker said.

“We’re really pleased to have got that down,” Harrison said. “We’re also trying to serve some of the kids that have been in care a long time.”

This year, 19 new CASAs joined the program. Their retention rate is about 90 percent, Harrison said.

“We hope that in a year’s time we’ll be able to say that we’re serving all the children who need a CASA so we continue to run our recruitment both in Albany and in East Linn County, so that we can figure out more and more people to come and join us and to take on some of these kids and walk alongside them,” Harrison said.

Having a CASA can help a child return home earlier and hopefully do better in other areas of their lives as well.

“We know that providing them with one consistent adult is going to do them a service in terms of their mental health and connection,” Harrison said.

Harrison also said that due to some changes in the way DHS handles cases, Linn County is now in the bottom five of counties anywhere in Oregon for taking children into care.

Tucker clarified that the change is due to a change in model, not a reduction in abuse cases.

“When I talked to ABC House, the number of kids being intervened, being seen for possible abuse, hasn’t dropped. They’re still seeing the numbers up,” Tucker said. “What’s dropped is, we’ve changed the model of when we take the kids from the parents. And that’s also worrisome to me.”

A representative from the ABC House was not available to respond to questions by press time.

Harrison also clarified that DHS is providing in-home supports for six weeks or offering an alternative way, for example asking children to live with their grandparents instead.

Commissioner Roger Nyquist asked what part addiction plays in the problem.

“In our experience, we have very few of our parents who don’t have some involvement with drug sand alcohol,” Harrison said.

CASA Program Manager Molly Chambers said addiction doesn’t always show up in the legal case, so it is difficult to give an accurate number. She did say that more than 50 percent of the legal cases have drugs as a legal basis and probably another 20 to 25 percent have that as an underlying issue.

“It usually isn’t just addiction,” Chambers said. “It’s domestic violence.”

Nyquist said they can continue to grow the volunteer base but they also need to do something to address the root problem.

“I don’t know what that is,” Nyquist said. “I have some ideas but we’ve got Frank (Moore) here tomorrow.”

Harrison said they would be happy to be part of that discussion.

Nyquist asked Harrison for her and her staff’s thoughts on a long-term strategy by Labor Day.

The following day, at the July 20 Board of Commissioners meeting, he asked Linn County Health Administrator Frank Moore to also give his input in about 90 days.

Specifically, Nyquist asked if they could look at addiction treatment programs, nationally and internationally, that are having success.

“Maybe it’s as simple as a computer and Google search,” Nyquist said.

Moore agreed that looking at other programs would be beneficial.

“It will take, in my mind, two things: it will take an infusion of resources and it will also take a dialogue with the state (at the legislative level) to really begin to take a look at the categorical funding distribution of substance use disorder services,” Moore said.

He said it is time to take a look at getting out of the box.

“I’m not saying in any way it has to be done solely on the backs of additional revenues, or more staff or for that matter local government,” Moore said. “I think that there are ways, part of what we’re doing, for an example with mental health is looking to embrace the faith community.

“The faith community is a resource, that quite frankly, my profession and discipline has been somewhat, if not phobic of, we’ve kept the faith community at arms reach as a resource, which is most people’s social support system.”

Faith systems help people deal with crises and disfunction in their lives, he said.

“I think part of that maybe that’s one of the places we begin to look,” Moore said.