Local welfare officials see domino effect toppling Malheur County families, leaving kids in poverty

Jennie Knott, an instructional assistant at Treasure Valley Children’s Relief, provides developmental therapy to a child at the nursery. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

VALE – Malheur County has the second highest rate of childhood poverty in the state, according to a new report. The county also hugs the bottom in other measures reviewed by Children First for Oregon in 2019.

The state child advocacy program showed 30% of the county’s children live in poverty. The state average sits at 16.5%. 

“This is not just a child welfare concern,” said Wendy Hill, district manager for self sufficiency and child welfare programs at the Department of Human Services in Ontario. “It’s really a community concern.”

Several factors may be at the root of the county’s impoverishment, said Jenifer Wagley, executive director of Children First for Oregon. 

“Housing instability is one of the things that really disrupts families,” she said. 

In 2018, one in 20 students experienced homelessness in the county – around 261 kids. This means kids moving from one house to the next throughout the school year, having to couchsurf. That’s what homelessness looks like when you’re a student, said Wagley.

“When you think of Malheur, we should be able to figure out solutions for all those kids and those families,” Wagley added.

One key measure is how much families spend on housing. In 2018, more than 25% of local renters were paying more than 50% of their income in rent. 

“That’s not sustainable,” said Wagley.

The report reviewed five categories: health, child welfare, financial stability, early childhood education, and youth development and education.

In the child welfare category, the county ranks 32 out of 36 for abuse and neglect, with 29 out of every 1,000 children counted as victims. That’s double the state rate. 

It’s a domino effect, said Hill. Opiate use is at the root of many of the issues. 

It often starts with addictions, she said.

“Those addictions make it really difficult,” said Hill. 


Soon after, crime may follow. A record may come after that, making it harder for parents to keep a job or retain adequate housing. No one will rent to them, said Hill, even if they have a housing voucher. 

Subsequently, children may end up in substandard housing conditions. 

“What happens is that parents get further into their addiction and begin to neglect their children,” said Hill. 

District Attorney David Goldthorpe said he doesn’t often see criminal child neglect cases, but he does deal with other issues.

“We have a substantial amount of child sexual abuse we deal with,” said Goldthorpe.  

But when it comes to the abuse and neglect, the numbers don’t just reflect extreme cases, said Lori Harrison, director of the nonprofit Treasure Valley Children’s Relief Nursery in Ontario. 

Abuse can occur on several levels, said Harrison.

“People’s minds always seem to go to the worst extremes, but just the simple things can negatively affect a child,” she said. “Not having enough food or love or attention, or coming home to an empty house.” 

To qualify for the nursery, families must have five out of 47 risk factors. The most common risk factor is poverty, said Harrison. 

“We’re so rural,” she added. “There are fewer jobs available and it’s an agricultural economy so a lot of jobs are seasonal.” 

Harrison guessed there are several factors for Malheur County’s dismal numbers. She thinks some people move to the area to be closer to inmates at Snake River Correctional Institution, and that Idaho’s low minimum wage may also contribute.

At the nursery, grants allow children to attend three hours a day, twice a week. The classrooms are therapeutic, said Harrison, which means the focus is on providing emotional support and skills to young kids who may not always be getting that kind of attention at home. 

“Abuse happens when parents think kids should be doing something and they’re not,” said Shelley York, an interventionist at the nursery.

Interventionists act like parenting coaches. Their job is to teach at-risk parents about developmental milestones and best practices. 

It’s not just about poverty, added York. Many families are going through a rough patch, but for many others, it’s a cycle.

“It was the way they were raised and they don’t know a different lifestyle,” said Harrison.

The nursery wants to break that cycle. 

On Halloween day, Harrison walked through the classrooms in a Tigger suit. She pointed to a toddler in the 3 and 4-year-old classroom. He seemed to be having trouble sharing his blocks with a classmate.

His interventionist walked him through divvying up the colorful cubes. Soon, the little boy gave away all his blocks to his pig-tailed classmate.

“A few weeks ago he wasn’t even socializing at all,” said Harrison.

The nursery does a great deal to tend to young children’s emotional and behavioral needs. When a kid acts up, a teacher may counsel him or sit and talk inside a quiet room with posters that ask “How am I feeling?”

A laundry room houses clothes and supplies for children who don’t always come dressed appropriately. Teachers wash dirty clothes and provide weather-appropriate shoes when it’s clear the child is going without.

The nursery’s grants only allow them to serve 52 children from 18 months to 5 years old. There is always a waiting list. 

The nursery is not the only agency in the county that struggles to keep up with the need and demand locally.

Around the county, Hill said parents face what she called a “childcare desert.” A lack of affordable and quality care is an issue that may lead to the numbers identified by Children First in their report. 

Hill said local caseworkers sometimes see children of migrant farmworkers who stay home to care for younger kids because parents have to work and childcare options in the area are slim. 

The local state office recently received funding for an additional 20 employees. Historically, the agency has been swamped by the need with not enough employees to cover the caseload, said Hill.

The influx of positions will allow caseworkers to spend more time with families instead of being bogged down by paperwork, said Christine Phillips, state child welfare program manager in Ontario.

“It’s going to provide more than a Band-Aid,” said Phillips, and give caseworkers more face-to-face time with clients. 

Phillips still remembers the 8-year-old who walked himself to his own mental health appointment. His parents weren’t around. 

Despite some of the bleak outcomes highlighted in the report, Wagley said there are some bright spots. The county has posted gains in prenatal care. Nearly 10% more women are now receiving adequate care than in 2015. 

The number of uninsured children has also dropped, Wagley noted.

“That would be something I would say is working well – whatever Malheur is doing for uninsured children is working and maybe intensify that and keep doing it so we can close that gap,” she said.  

Wagley said a focus on federal safety net programs is key if the county is to see further improvements. 

Local agencies should ensure that all families who qualify for the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit are receiving those benefits, she said. Making sure all kids are counted in the 2020 Census is another way to ensure that federal dollars will come the county’s way. 

“If we’re not investing in children,” Wagley said, “we’re not thinking about the future.” 


Special Report: Hidden Children

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377

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