By Pat Caldwell
ONTARIO — The cases sometimes linger for Ontario resident John Taggart and his wife Lois.
The Taggarts are members of the Malheur County Citizen Review Board, a group of volunteers that review cases of children placed in foster care by state officials.
Occasionally a specific case will be especially poignant for the retired teachers.
John Taggart recalls one involving one of his former students. Taggart remembered a student who “had a number of things going for her.”
He never expected to see her come before the review board.
But there she was, addicted to narcotics, her children taken by the state, her situation under review.
“That case stuck with me and my wife,” said Taggart.
Taggart and his wife and the other members of the local volunteer board see cases once a month when it conducts a state-sanctioned review. Taggart said he knows what drives a lot of the neglect cases.
“Narcotics, narcotics, narcotics,” said Taggart. “You are really looking at a certain segment of American society that is real and it is growing. We’ve really got a problem.”
The citizen review boards are an important piece of serving foster children in Malheur County, said John Nichols, a field manager for the Oregon Judicial Department. However, the local board needs help, said Nichols.
“We need three to five additional members,” said Nichols.
He is the field manager for citizen review boards in eastern Oregon.
Under Oregon law, each foster child case must be reviewed every six months by either the board or the court, said Nichols. Once the board reviews a specific case it delivers recommendations to the state Department of Human Services, which manages foster care, and the state court.
The need for the board locally is so acute, said Nichols, because the number of foster children continues to climb in Malheur County.
“It is a terrible concern,” Nichols said. “It means there are a lot of children who have huge needs that need to be addressed but it also says there is a crisis in Malheur County about the well being of families,” said Nichols.
Between January and June of this year, Nichols said, 179 children were taken from parents and placed in foster care in the county.
Nichols said there is many reasons children end up in foster care but illegal drug use is the leading factor.
“The issues that are bringing children to care are neglect. A lot of drug abuse, primarily meth and heroin. Some from actual direct abuse and those all, of course, overlap,” said Nichols.
Citizen review boards, Nichols said, accomplish several goals.
“We are sort of a checks and balances on what DHS is doing, what they should be doing to take care of children. We are trying to ensure DHS is meeting its own policies,” said Nichols.
The board is also a way for local residents to provide input on the welfare of at-risk children in the community.
“We have a direct ear to the judge,” said Nichols.
Taggart and his wife became members of the Malheur County review board about four years ago.
“We were a couple of old school teachers who felt we still had something left in us to give,” said Taggart.
Taggart said the work on the board is rewarding but demanding.
“The cases are so compelling that in you go. The members of the board do not serve as judges but as an oversight of DHS. So it is this unusual capacity but very much worthwhile,” Taggart said.
The board meets once a month and typically looks at 10 cases. Before the meeting, board members review each case. Parents, guardians, foster parents, children aged 14 and older, attorneys, court-appointed special advocates and child welfare workers can attend each session.
During each review, board members have to verify the state is adequately serving the family and the foster child. Before the board delivers its finding, members can direct questions to parents, children and other individuals linked to the case.
Like Taggart, board member Lanie Brewer said the volunteer gig is fulfilling but occasionally difficult.
“There are some pretty hard cases to read about, about what the children experienced. But it is rewarding in the fact that you are providing that citizen input, that outside view looking into a situation,” said Brewer.
Nichols said taking care of children is the driving force behind the board.
“We are really passionate about citizens having a voice in the care of children,” said Nichols.
There are 62 citizen review boards in 33 Oregon counties consisting of more than 260 volunteers. Each board has five members and two alternates. Volunteers must pass a background check and undergo training before they are appointed by the Oregon Supreme Court chief justice.
To find out more or to volunteer, contact Nichols at 541-233-8142.
Have a news tip? Email: ne[email protected] or call Pat Caldwell at (541) 473-3377.
We invite you to subscribe and support our local journalism: malheurenterprise.com/subscribe. Thank you.