In the community, Special Reports

Malheur’s kids in peril as parents, programs struggle with economic, social challenges

Children in Malheur County are suffering in poverty, and that suffering has reached crisis proportions.

A Malheur Enterprise investigation found a lack of leadership, insufficient resources and splintered efforts to relieve child poverty. Malheur County’s children who squat in friends’ homes, depend on food pantries and grapple alone with mental illness have been hidden in plain sight.

As a result of systemic failures, Malheur County’s rate of child poverty as measured by the state  ­– 36% – has been the worst in the state for at least a decade. More than 2,300 children in the county don’t have what Americans consider the basics – decent housing, adequate food and a meaningful education.

They are victims of a weak local economy with too many low-paying jobs that leave their families with too little in the refrigerator and in the gas tank. They are victims of easy access by adults to illicit drugs that leave parents incapacitated and neglectful.

The government agencies and nonprofits trying to change any of that strain with limited budgets and staff. Their ambitions get stunted.

The findings emerge from more than 85 interviews with families, educators, mental health professionals, housing officials, social workers, food bank organizers and county leaders. The investigation also reviewed federal, state and local reports.

For too many families, money is the matter. Affording basics poses a challenge for some working families whose incomes have remained comparatively stagnant despite cost-of-living increases over the last decade.

A Malheur County family with one working adult and two children would need to earn nearly $80,000 yearly to support themselves, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator. That’s nearly double the median household income in Malheur County of $48,000. Farmworkers, the backbone of the local economy, earn less. They make $20,000 to $25,000 annually, according to the Oregon Housing and Community Services.

“They just can barely make enough to get by and, you know, their tires go out,” said Christine Phillips, a child services executive in the Ontario office of the state Department of Human Services. “Then they can’t get to work, they can’t get their kids to school.”

Such families do what they can for themselves and their children with what they have. They often don’t ask for help out of pride or because they aren’t aware of government and social services.

Defining child poverty

Children who grow up in families enduring economic hardship can be impoverished by lack of life’s basic needs. They often do not have a stable supply of food, adequate and safe shelter, means for education or care for their medical and mental health traumas. As a consequence, children’s physical, cognitive and emotional development is affected.

“They are overwhelmed by life,” said Sharon Katz, a retired psychologist and an Ontario school volunteer.

Tim Heinze, executive director of the Treasure Valley Relief Nursery in Ontario, said he sees parents working up to three jobs while deciding whether to put food on the table, pay rent, pay utilities or fix their car. Family stressors have an “adverse effect” on kids even if parents don’t mean them to, he said.

Lucas McManis, a recent graduate from Ontario High School, describes how he quietly absorbed the stress and anxiety he felt at home.

“Our water got shut off for a brief period because they couldn’t pay the water bill. Our internet got shut off for a little bit because they couldn’t pay the internet bill,” McManis said. “I wish I knew if I had something to reach out to for help, because it’s really stressful. You feel just kind of helpless.”

Other kids are simply neglected.

Malheur County’s children sometimes go without food, clean water, electricity or even a safe home. Not long ago, Malheur County Deputy Sheriff Haylee Harding discovered three kids living in a camper without running water or electricity.

Besides finding affordable housing and a livable wage, some parents face more grave issues that leave them unable or unwilling to work – like battling drug and alcohol addiction or persistent domestic violence.

Drug abuse skyrocketed following the Covid pandemic and the decriminalization of drug use in Oregon under Measure 110, and remains persistent. Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County district attorney, estimates the transient population, including families with children in tow, tripled in Malheur County as people pursued easier access to substances.

Police officers witness firsthand the worst effects of drug abuse on children.

Ontario Police Officer Aaron Phillips cited one case where an infant had to be put on an emergency medical flight to Boise for treatment of severe abuse and trauma. The hospital found meth in his system. Police arrested the child’s parents.

Malheur Circuit Judge Lung Hung, who presides over state court in Malheur County, said parents who get in legal trouble struggle to get out.

“Money is key to help you get out of problems, to solve your problems,” said Hung. Without adequate money, “you don’t have that key.”

The state too often has to step in to remove children from risky homes.

“About 20 percent of our calls are related to neglect,” said Phillips. “People often wonder if poverty and neglect are hand-in-hand.”

Hung calculates that Malheur County has a higher percentage of state interventions than most other Oregon counties.

“It’s very sad, you know, to see kids that don’t understand why they are being taken away from mom and dad,” the judge said. “It’s emotional, draining sometimes, to watch the effects on these children.”

The series:

Part 1 – Malheur County continues to have one of the worst rates of child poverty in Oregon, despite determined local efforts.

Part 2 – Children are living in substandard housing, as Malheur County’s shortage of homes remains challenging.

Part 3 – Getting enough food to feed children is no easy task for many Malheur County households.

Part 4 – Schools in Malheur County step in to serve children in need with more than an education.

Part 5 – Shortage of facilities and professionals leaves children’s mental health needs unmet.

Malheur Circuit Judge Lung Hung presides over cases involving juveniles being placed into foster care. (VENICE TANG/The Enterprise)

Kids using drugs themselves is another concern. Two students in the Vale school system recently overdosed on drugs – one of them a middle schooler.

Bottom line: The prevalence of impoverished households in Malheur County leaves hundreds of children unhoused, unfed or uneducated.

Kelly Poe has worked in Malheur County’s social agencies for more than 20 years. She is now director of early learning at the Malheur Education Service District.

“We’ve had the highest poverty in the state or competed for the highest poverty rate in this state for as long as I’ve been in this field,” she said. “This isn’t new at all.”

A foundational challenge to helping family and their children overcome deprivation is housing. There isn’t enough in Malheur County and most isn’t affordable for those working low-income jobs.

The market rent for a three-bedroom apartment in Malheur County is $1,165, according to the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department. That’s almost half the gross pay of someone working full-time at $15 an hour, earning $2,600 a month.

Mary Ann Almaraz of the Ontario School District talks about child poverty in May 2023. (VENICE TANG/The Enterprise)

Mary Ann Almaraz, a homeless liaison in the Ontario School District, is on the frontlines of working with children with housing difficulties.

“There’s not enough housing. That’s probably my number one trouble,” Almaraz said.

The effects of a lack of housing can be disastrous on kids.

“Children experiencing homelessness are sick at twice the rate of children who have homes. They also go hungry twice as often as children who have homes,” according to the National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness.

Unhoused children also have twice the rate of learning disabilities and suffer from emotional and behavioral problems three times as often as kids who have homes, the center reports.

Getting kids enough food to keep them healthy and nourished is another struggle. Employment does not guarantee enough to pay for food for a family, even when the job is picking crops that others are eating.

Field worker Liliana Dominguez cleans onions and potatoes for 10 hours a day but continues to struggle to pay for heat in the winter and for food year-round for her children.

“When there is no food, what can we do? They have to eat because they are kids,” Dominguez said. “They don’t know when something is missing or not.”

Accessing food can be difficult for parents working long hours or who have no reliable way to get to supermarkets or community food banks.

Sometimes, the hunger is hidden.

Hung, the judge, told of a student “picking out the garbage at school so that child could eat.” Since the child was living with parents, authorities were unaware of the home circumstances.

Children suffer more than hunger pangs, authorities say, when food is in short supply.

“Adequate and consistent nutrition are essential for brain and body development in infants and toddlers,” said Dr. Matt Berria of Snake River Pediatrics. “Inadequate access to quality food has the potential for lifelong health consequences including poorer mental health outcomes as well as atherosclerotic disease leading to heart disease and stroke, the number one killer in the U.S.”

Professor Josh Jorgensen researches and teaches about nutrition at the University of Oregon.

“Food insecurity can increase stress and related stress hormones, which also have detrimental effects physically and mentally,” Jorgensen said.

And a child’s school attendance signals whether they’ll graduate high school, which is an important step to bettering their situation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Oregon saw a 36% chronic absenteeism rate among economically disadvantaged students in 2021-22. At certain Malheur County schools, chronic absenteeism is even more prevalent. At Vale High School, fewer than half the students are present most of the time.

Attendance rates are even lower for students experiencing homelessness, with six out of 10 such students listed as chronically absent across the state.

VIDEO: What Malheur County authorities say

For many kids with difficult home lives, school is a sanctuary. To make sure disadvantaged children are cared for when they do come to class, educators and other school employees across Malheur County step in as social workers, counselors, food banks, parents and even alarm clocks.

Every morning, Vale High School Principal Lucas Tackman makes several wake-up phone calls to chronically absent students who have a tough time getting to school.

Shouldering this myriad of responsibilities and roles is taking a toll on teachers and school officials who are asked to do more than they can handle. The trauma that educators witness during home visits to students’ homes and other venues sticks with them, said one retired Ontario teacher.

“It’s overwhelming. I go home with it,” the educator said, asking not to be named to protect student privacy.

School teachers aren’t the only ones bearing the brunt of Malheur County’s deep child poverty. Jody Warnock, executive director of Community in Action, said the organization’s employees are overworked and understaffed. So are mental health counselors across Malheur County, said Ken Hart, Valley Family Health Care CEO.

Growing up without reliable access to food or a stable home can lead to kids being maladapted, out of touch with social norms, or more prone to behavioral issues.

Tackman said a student in his Vale school who didn’t eat regularly started lashing out at school, disrespecting teachers and classmates. Teachers didn’t understand his behavior, but Tackman saw that the student’s basic needs weren’t met. The student resorted to a “fight or flight” mode and was either aggressive or not coming to school at all.

Behavioral problems can become more serious and lead to kids landing in juvenile detention and getting in trouble with the law.

Miguel Castillo, who grew up in a low-income, single-parent household and lived in Ontario during the 2000s, faced a felony conviction when he was 17 for assault with a deadly weapon.

“There was just gang violence all around us,” Castillo said.

Manuel was a junior in high school in Ontario when he was stabbed in his neighborhood, leading him to realize the danger he was in. Even though Manuel (not his real name) and the sister he lives with don’t have enough money for groceries, his top wish is for something else – mental health counseling.

High levels of stress, abuse or neglect can result in mental illnesses like anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. The trauma kids can get from unstable or unsafe housing, lack of food and substance use leaves a mark on their mental health that local agencies in Malheur County struggle to address.

When children suffer from poor mental health, they’re more likely to falter or fail in school, said Lifeways counselor Nancy Longoria. Falling behind in school can lead to anxiety and depression, she said, creating a cycle kids struggle to escape. Kids with untreated mental illness aren’t in a position to succeed.

Child poverty rooted in insufficient, strained services and leadership

Such challenges have been apparent for years as Malheur County has held on to the distinction of among the highest poverty rates in Oregon.

The evidence is documented in public report after public report over the years by state agencies such as the state Department of Human Services and from nonprofits such as Our Children Oregon.

No local authority disputed that Malheur County’s children are enduring a crisis.

They cite not enough funding to put enough professionals to work tackling the crisis.

They cite the absence of key community institutions, primarily to address mental illness.

They cite the border influence – people moving into Malheur County from Idaho, bringing with them substance and economic issues.

And they cite a complex of organizations and experts determined to help but often working on their own. They are so stretched for time and money that they first must tend their own duties.

“One organization cannot tackle this issue,” said Dan Ramirez, who oversees the state Human Services Department operation based in Ontario.

Hung agrees.

“A lot of people do various wonderful things for the children in our community,” he said. “But it’s not always so organized.”

A community will to act is vital, authorities say.

“We can push more and more food and we can demand more dollars and we can fundraise for more dollars to provide more emergency food,” said Lindsay Grosvenor of the Oregon Food Bank, which has a robust Malheur County presence. “But if you’re not addressing the root causes of hunger, which is all of the systems and the structures and the laws and the legislation, we’re going to be swimming upstream.”

Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge.(The Enterprise/FILE)

The one constant in local government over the years has been Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge. He’s been in county office for more than 20 years, most as the top elected official overseeing a government that runs juvenile and health departments and funds mental health care.

In an interview, Joyce said the poverty of children in his county has been “an issue for eons.”

He told of sitting in the county courthouse in Vale 20 years ago when a citizen told him she was in town to help a boy so impoverished he didn’t know what boxer shorts were. Joyce said he was moved to tears – and later chased after the lady to give her money to help.

But he struggled to identify any official action he’s taken since then to alleviate child impoverishment.

“Someone’s got to be held accountable” that the issue persists, he said, though he couldn’t say who.

He said he doesn’t get information on the matter unless someone comes to him. Otherwise, he said he gets a sense of child poverty by watching traffic in and out of the food bank across from his office.

He sidestepped responsibility, saying he holds just one vote on the three-person Malheur County Court. “It takes a village” to address the issue, he said. He works full time. The other two commissioners are part time.

Joyce did advance one solution. He said families and their children receiving government food benefits ought to be educated about the source of food. He couldn’t explain how that would reduce impoverishment.

What can be done?

Authorities say the community needs to act – government agencies, nonprofits and parents themselves.

“When we talk about trying to change the trajectory of something, we really need to focus on a mindset of a community,” said Poe of the Education Service District.

Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County District attorney, talks about child poverty in May 2023. (SHANE DIMAPANAT/The Enterprise)

Goldthorpe, the district attorney, said parents are ultimately responsible for their children. The issues and circumstances they face are to blame, he said, when kids are left without a chance. When parents fail, though, the community’s role can be unclear.

“When as a community, we see a failing in that regard, should we allow that child to suffer? At what point do we step in?” Goldthorpe said.

It can be difficult for families to break out of poverty, said Tobey Huddleston, the principal of Aiken Elementary School in Ontario.

“A lot of times when families are in a cycle of poverty, it continues,” Huddleston said. “It’s generational, so I think that’s hard to break free from sometimes.”

Goldthorpe suggested how citizens can help Malheur County’s impoverished children. He said solutions start with “people who have the ability to help, whether that’s because of their time, or their finances, or their education, to be able to be the person who steps up and says ‘I’m going to help make a difference.’”

Volunteering for community boards and service projects or becoming foster parents and teacher aides can help organizations and agencies that are understaffed. Getting community members more involved in tackling child poverty is where solutions can start, according to Goldthorpe.

What individuals can accomplish is limited. Goldthorpe has run into issues with receiving state support to tackle the drug addictions and health care issues that some disadvantaged families face.

“In our county, we don’t have a detox center and we don’t have a mental health respite center, two things that I think would be essential to begin to address any of these problems,” Goldthorpe said. “If we had that money from the federal government, or from the state government, or both to build those facilities and run those facilities, I believe you’d see, in a very short time, a dramatic change in the issues that we’re talking about.”

Lucas McManis, who graduated from Ontario High School, believes the state must do more to help children facing issues of impoverishment as he did. (VENICE TANG/The Enterprise)

McManis, the recent high school graduate, agrees.

“The state’s got to get involved,” McManis said. “There needs to be more advocating for people in these situations.”

And while government food benefits help, they have been pared since the pandemic. About one out of four people in Malheur County receive such help. The reduction in food stamp benefits causes families to struggle even more to feed their children.

And families in need often get lost navigating the myriad of local organizations and programs that are trying to help them.

“What needs to happen is better collaboration and coordination. We have a lot of community-based organizations that do great work, but we still kind of exist in silos,” said Heinze of the Treasure Valley Children’s Relief Nursery.

The nursery can only accept a limited number of children per year. It gets donations from the community and takes on volunteers, but there are still gaps in how children and families are served.

“We’re not working with each other. Whether that’s fear of competition or constantly putting out fires and we’re busy, I don’t know what it is,” Heinze said. “But if we’re able to work together, better as a team, I think we’ll be able to do better work for children, adolescents and adults and people in their later years.”

Katz, the psychologist, wishes more people would volunteer to help, whether at schools or other venues. Such help is the “only way to get out of the cycle.”

That also means giving impoverished children hope.

“I wish they could see futures for themselves,” she said.


Join the conversation. How can the community improve life for children in impoverished circumstances? Who should take the lead on this issue? Send an email to Publisher Les Zaitz: [email protected].

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