Breanne endured neglect for years before finally moving to a home where she learned what normal parents are like. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)
The state worker’s directive on a school night shocked the young girl: “Go pack your things.”
Breanne went to her room, where she clung to her bunk bed.
She didn’t want to go.
The state worker insisted.
“Say goodbye to your mom,” the worker said.
And with that Breanne continued her odyssey in Oregon’s child welfare system that put her in a string of foster and adoptive homes, exposed her to abuse and neglect, and challenged everything a child comes to expect of home and adults.
Today at age 20, Breanne is a survivor. She and her two sisters ended up with an Albany family that recently moved to Ontario. She found a home where taking a shower was expected, not a privilege. She hasn’t had to pack her things in years.
She has emerged from a foster care system that in Oregon and in Malheur County is overwhelmed.
In 2017, state officials determined 11,077 Oregon children were neglected or abused. Twenty died. In Malheur County, children were victimized at a rate more than double the state average.
On any one day during the year, 7,800 Oregon children were living in foster care. They spent their time with strangers, volunteers who agreed to act as temporary parents, or with relatives acting as foster parents. They would move often while under the state’s protective wing. In 2017, nearly 1,000 foster children moved six or more times.
The state system has been the target of one scathing report after another in the past decade. In January, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson was the latest, concluding the foster care system run by Oregon was flawed from top to bottom. State officials agreed, promising change. Some fixes, they said, would take more than a year.
Meantime, foster children suffer. There aren’t enough state workers to tend their needs and not enough foster parents to provide a safe home. One state study found foster kids suffer in school, face emotional instability, and struggle harder to get jobs and build relationships.
Breanne wants to beat those odds. She told her story on the condition her full name not be used and her foster parents not be identified. Her foster mother participated in interviews, encouraging Breanne to share her account of life in Oregon’s system.
The memories tumbled out, disjointed in some ways because, as Breanne explained politely several times, she has mentally blocked out parts of her life. She shared to show that not all foster kids fail, that others like her need to cling to hope. At times, she could laugh. At others, she became quiet and teared up.
As a toddler, she was twice removed and returned to her parents and then was removed for good at age 4. Neglect was the reason.
She spent the next five years with adoptive parents, but that proved an abusive environment.
The girls were required to stay in their room. They resorted to using their closet as a toilet.
Meals were irregular. When they could, they would sneak into the kitchen and break open cans of frosting to eat. Their mother was a baker by profession, and the cans were stored at a level the young girls could reach.
“We ate dinner only if someone was over,” Breanne recalled. The girls loved to have overnight stays at friends’ homes.
“We at least had food,” she said.
There were good times, she said. That included camping trips and a big trip to a California amusement park.
But mostly, it was a restricted life laced with abuse. Her mother left the girls home alone, or with their adoptive father. Breanne said her older sister stepped in to endure the abuse from their father, sparing her young siblings the sexual assault that was to come.
For the young girl, birthdays weren’t occasions.
“They weren’t very happy for me,” she said.
The father was then arrested for abusing his daughters, and the mother remarried. Now, other abuse occurred in the home. Someone at church reported that Breanne and her two sisters were neglected – and possibly worse.
She has to chase the details in her memory.
“I remember bits and pieces,” she said, but she has blanked out much of what happened.
She vividly recalls the evening when she was 9 that state workers, apparently responding to abuse reports, showed up to question the girls. Told to pack, the girls were led from the house of their adoptive mom and her new husband.
Breanne remembers getting into the state car. She has no more memory of the evening.
They were placed in one foster home, but moved a month later when the state determined the foster father was a convicted sex offender. They moved to another home for about a week and then to yet another home, where an elderly couple became their foster parents.
“We called them grandma and grandpa,” Breanne recalled.
Richardson’s audit noted that state workers sometimes are “driven by urgency rather than the best fit” in picking new foster homes.
Rebellious, Breanne got into spats with new foster mother, an elderly woman with large, gaudy rings on one hand. Breanne said her attitude drew backhands and other abuse. She and her sisters continued a pattern set years earlier, sneaking into the kitchen to steal food.
“That was just a habit we got into,” she said.
The state reacted to the new abuse reports and the girls once again were on the move.
The continued turmoil left Breanne unsettled.
“There were times I just wanted to give up,” she said.
They arrived at their new foster home with few possessions. That night, the new family took them to Target for basics, such as toothbrushes.
Breanne admits being bratty, but her new foster parents wouldn’t give up on her. She had new freedoms.
“Oh my gosh. I get to go to school today,” Breanne recalled thinking as she settled in to her new home. “I don’t have to stay in my room. I don’t have to get beaten.”
She reveled in the love, the order and the comfort of a stable family. Her foster mother was “what a mom’s supposed to be” and her foster father showed her not all dads were abusive.
Breanne and her sisters eventually lost the fear that they would once again have to move.
Last year, she graduated from high school, and she is enrolled to start college in spring term. She plans marriage, then kids. She is determined, too, to become a foster mom.
She wants to be a living example for other children in the foster system.
“Don’t give up hope,” she advises. “Beat the cycle.”
Note: This is the fourth article in a four-part series on challenges facing the foster care system in Oregon and Malheur County.
PART I: Malheur County system in crisis
PART II: Foster parents face state neglect
Les Zaitz: [email protected], 541-473-3377
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