The plight of foster parents in Malheur County

Daniel, 11, is in a foster home in Vale, attending school, doing his homework and sharing with his foster parents news of the day and whether there were any “hard times.” (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

ONTARIO – The abused 5-year-old was suddenly homeless.

His guardian, unwilling to host him any longer, dropped him off with state workers in Ontario.

They moved quickly that Thanksgiving eve two years ago to find someone to care for him. They found Tamara Uriarte.

Uriarte, retired, knew of the youngster through church and heard the reports of the abuse. Now, state workers asked if she would become his foster mother.

She hardly hesitated before saying yes.

“I knew I was getting a damaged child,” Uriarte said. “I wanted him to be saved.”

Uriarte joined a small corps of foster parents in Malheur County who care for society’s most vulnerable children. Hers is one of 24 general foster homes. Relatives have stepped up to serve as foster parents, providing the state temporary shelter at 61 homes.

Foster care involves an elaborate network of state workers, counselors, lawyers, judges and therapists who are supposed to help children like that 5-year-old boy.

All of them depend on foster parents.

These temporary parents are expected to meet stringent requirements of character and training. Their homes must pass repeated inspections. They are expected to provide day-to-day parenting. And with a monthly stipend from the state, they provide everything a foster child might need, from shoes to clothes to furnishings.

“We’re not looking for perfect families,” said Louise Schneider, who retired from the Ontario state office last year.

The prime duty of foster parents is to shelter children who have been abused or neglected.

But foster parents themselves are neglected by Oregon’s system, according to an investigation by the Malheur Enterprise.

Interviews with foster parents and a review of state records show the parents often are asked to take on more children than they think they can handle, and children they aren’t trained to raise.

They have too little contact with state caseworkers, leaving them without a guide through a frustratingly complex system.

And they are paid a fraction of the costs they incur to care for a stranger’s child.

Those findings were echoed in focus groups with foster parents that state officials conducted around Oregon last year.

The report on those encounters, obtained through a public records request, said that foster parents can get “mixed messages depending on who they spoke to involved in each case. One day they might be told to take a child to a doctor’s appointment, but when they show up, be told they should not be there.”

The report said parents complained the state training “did not prepare them for the children that were placed in their homes, and frequently was ‘too nice’ about the realities of being a foster parent.”

Children show up from “other foster homes with no belongings despite having been in care for some time. All agreed that children should not be coming to placements with their belongings in trash bags.”

The agency said such issues “are ones that the department has been aware of for some time.”

Secretary of State Dennis Richardson documented failures in the foster parent system in an audit released in late January.

Foster parents “reported being asked to take more children than they can accommodate, or to take children on an emergency basis that turns into weeks and months,” said his audit. “Foster families have taken on tasks normally assigned to caseworkers, such as arranging meetings with birth parents and transporting both foster children and their birth parents to appointments.”

Richardson said the state agency responsible for foster children “does very little to track the concerns of foster parents in the system or to follow up with foster parents who have left the system.”

As a result, the state is short of foster homes in Malheur County and across the state. Oregon has nowhere near enough good places to put children who face risks if left with their parents.

Malheur County has a “desperate need” for more volunteer foster parents, said Leah Mack, a state worker in Ontario who certifies people to become foster parents.

Recruiting isn’t easy. Parents who volunteer often drop out, overwhelmed by behaviors they can’t manage, unwilling to endure the strain on their families, and worn down by the state’s unceasing efforts to get them to do more.

“You’ve really got to love kids because there are so many negatives,” said Janeille Bennett of Vale, a veteran foster parent and president of the Malheur County Foster and Adoptive Parents Association.

Bennett and her husband started taking in children while they lived in Florida and continued when they moved to Vale in 2012. The placements have always seemed rushed – a call from a caseworker, an immediate need, and children showing up “always with little notice,” Bennett said.

A boy and his infant sister arrived with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

The baby, Bennett recalled, had no diapers, “one bottle and no formula.”

Her brother had no underwear.

“You have to put out money to get what these kids need,” Bennett said.

The case of the two siblings illustrates how trying such volunteering can be, she said.

By law, state officials must plan from the start to return foster children to their parents. The parents get detailed plans showing what they must do to recover their children. If they fail, their children are prepared for adoption.

Over the next year, Bennett said, the brother and infant sister were taken back to the mother, returned to Bennett’s home, taken back to an aunt, and returned again to Bennett’s home.

“We as a family mourn, as in any kind of loss, when the kids leave,” Bennett said. “So many times, I don’t think I can do it again.”

The siblings are now with a grandmother in Texas.

Monica Grenz had her own children, age 5 and 7, when she decided to become a foster parent in Albany. She didn’t have to wait long for the state to call.

Grenz said a caseworker reached her at work one afternoon to say three sisters immediately needed a new home to escape abuse. The sisters showed up hours later, on a Friday night.

“We were completely unprepared,” said Grenz, now living in Ontario.

She remembers her family sitting with the three girls that evening.

“I was scared,” she said. “I thought: What do we talk about?”

Grenz said her family didn’t anticipate the immediate financial impact.

“You don’t realize how much they come without,” she said.

Short of beds, Grenz resorted to air mattresses. There was the nighttime trip to Target and “a hundred dollars later” the three sisters had some basics.

The family had to learn the ins and outs of the foster care system. She had to arrange school for her foster daughters.

“We didn’t know how all these processes worked,” she said. “We were kind of blind for awhile.”

They brought the girls with them when they moved to Ontario, where her husband works for the state.

Their home got more crowded as they continued to accept foster children. Grenz, active in the foster parent community, said it isn’t unusual for parents to have blended families of their children and foster children.

“Their families are large because their hearts are big,” said Grenz.

Foster parents have to learn to say no, she said. That isn’t easy.

Her family took in a 4-year-old boy, the second foster home for him. For reasons she prefers not to explain, she said she had to ask the state to move him.

“To this day, I can’t have him back and that hurts,” she said.

Andrea Lockner, now with Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc. and once a state caseworker, said foster children can severely disrupt a home, leading foster parents to make a choice.

“They don’t want the child to go but they can’t keep going on,” she said.

Sylvia Medina, who lives on a farm near Vale, met foster children in her previous work as a dental assistant and would quiz caseworkers. One caseworker began asking her every month whether she was ready to step into the role of foster mother. She finally said yes.

Five days later, she got a call. A newborn, 5 days old, was ready to leave the hospital but couldn’t go home with the mother.

Medina polled her husband and children.

“Everybody at the same time said ‘Go get her,’” Medina recalled.

The state issued an emergency certification, allowing Medina to become a foster parent with a quick background check and a home inspection.

“They said I needed a fire extinguisher and a carbon monoxide monitor,” she said.

For the next six months, Medina took the infant to work with her.

“You can’t be in this if you’re not in 100 percent,” she said.

Medina said she had little idea of the network of people involved in a foster child’s life.

“I thought they had a caseworker and that was it,” she said.

That newborn is now 18 months old and Medina hopes to adopt her.

She said she has taken in other foster children because the need is so great.

“There was a kid that came to us with one pair of socks,” Medina said.

She talked with other foster parents, to learn and to help. She recalled reaching out to a foster mother who had taken in twin girls.

“I asked her how’s it going, and she broke down,” Medina said.

Foster parents can be unsparing in their advice for how to fix the system and get more people to volunteer.

With more support, foster parents would be less likely to ask the state to remove a child.

Gary Kiyuna, a Nyssa attorney who often represents foster children, said it does a child no good to be moved from one foster home to the next. He calls it “foster care drift.”

Foster parents say they want more respect from state officials.

“The foster parent is the stepchild in the system,” Bennett said.

Patricia Sullivan, senior circuit judge in Malheur County, said foster parents often aren’t told all they need to know before agreeing to the role. She said she thinks state workers may fear they will scare off potential foster parents if they are too candid.

She said foster parents too often are left feeling like they are “glorified babysitters.”

State Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, a former foster parent, agreed these volunteers don’t get what they deserve.

“Frankly, foster parents have not had as big a voice at the table as they should,” she said.

That’s clear in the compensation for foster parents.

Until recently, someone caring for a child 5 or younger got $575 a month.

That figure hadn’t changed since 2009 and by the state’s own calculations, covered about 45 percent of actual costs. Foster parents were expected to dig into their own wallets to cover the rest.

The state Department of Human Services, responsible for foster children, hasn’t always spoken up for foster parents. In 2015, as the state prepared its new two-year budget, the agency didn’t seek one extra dollar for foster parents. Department executives explain that officials who are no longer there had other priorities.

That changed last year, when the agency asked for $22.9 million to reimburse parents fully for the cost of caring for Oregon’s most needy children. Gov. Kate Brown agreed to an increase, but asked legislators only for $7.9 million – less than half what her child welfare officials figured was fair. Legislators cut even more, budgeting just $6 million for foster parents.

In January, foster parents got an extra $118 a month to care for a child 5 or younger.

That pay is well short of the $1,225 the state calculates is needed each month to cover the cost of one foster child.

But money is only part of the need, foster parents say.

Child care for foster parents would be a huge help, they say. Today in many homes, both husband and wife work, requiring day care for foster children.

“Day care is hugely expensive,” said Schroeder.

One parent said day care for her foster children eats up her monthly stipend from the state. The rest – food, clothing, medicine and more – comes out of her family’s budget.

Foster parents also say the state should do better at telling volunteers what kind of help they can get from the state.

Uriarte said that for months she was changing bedding several times a night because her foster son was wetting the bed. She recently learned the state would cover the cost of rubber sheeting.

Medina also found out belatedly that foster parents can get mileage payments for driving foster children to appointments.

Parents say that the series of classes to train foster parents needs to be held more than once a year and include child care so parents can attend without distraction. Because trainings are infrequent, state officials in Ontario last year certified 45 people as foster parents on an emergency basis. They served sometimes months before getting the full state training.

State officials now are planning three trainings a year.

Despite the challenges, foster parents remain determined to do what they can to help children.

Uriarte said she will bear the costs and strains while doing everything she can to see that her foster son, now 7, gets the home and treatment he needs.

“I will never abandon him,” she vows.

Medina hopes people understand the need to support foster parents – and to become foster parents. She said circumstances could change for anyone in a way that puts a child into foster care.

“I’d want someone to open their door for my grandchild,” she said.

PART I: Malheur County system in crisis

PART I: Volunteers focus on speaking for kids

Les Zaitz: [email protected]; 541-473-3377

Janeille Bennett, a foster mother in Vale, reads to a 2-year-old foster boy as part of their afternoon routine. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

Sylvia Medina (right) engages in afternoon play activity with children at her farm home near Vale. She is a foster mom for an 18-month-old and a 5-year-old. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

Sylvia Medina, who lives in the Vale area, became a foster parent after helping treat children at a dental clinic. She hopes more Malheur County parents will volunteer. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

Chris Phillips (right), manager of the child welfare program in the Ontario district office of the state Department of Human Services, talks with Sally Vergara-Clement, a foster home certifier. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

Gary Kiyuna, a Nyssa attorney, often represents foster children, ensuring their rights are safeguarded. He worries that they are too often moved from home to home. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)