Workers with the Ontario office of the state Department of Human Services monitor a mother's weekly visit with her children. The supervised visits are one step towards returning children from foster care to their parents. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

ONTARIO – Behind closed doors, the four citizens asked probing questions about a foster child in state custody.

One asked about school. Another asked about how therapy was progressing. And another asked how the child’s mother was doing with treatment for a drug addiction.

A state caseworker sat before them, answering the questions, occasionally referring to a file several inches thick with reports, medical records, and more.

The four are a quiet but essential part of Malheur County’s foster care system. They are members of the Citizen Review Board, with the power to question how well the state is tending to children placed in foster care. They can push and prod the state to act quicker. They can catch when the state isn’t following the law, DHS policy, or court orders.

And like the rest of the system, the small board is overloaded. By law, they must get a briefing on each child every six months. With a record number of children in care in Malheur County, volunteers on the board last month worked two days to get through all the cases.

Anne Shuster is the veteran on the board, for a time serving as its only member. She has been joined by Lanie Brewer and the husband-and-wife team of John and Lois Taggart.

John Nichols, state field manager for the review board, said the Taggarts would like to step away from the board to be substitutes. He said one new member is in training. Members are appointed by a state judge and confirmed by the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court. Nichols said the board needs three more volunteers.

He said if the number of children in foster care remains high, the state would consider creating a second review board in Malheur County. At the end of 2017, 179 children from Malheur County were in foster care.

“The goal is to see that the agency is ensuring the health, well being and safety of the children in foster care,” Nichols said in a statement. “This is done as we make several findings required by Oregon statute and provide a report to the court and to all important parties to the case.”

John Taggart taught school locally for 40 years and has been on the Citizen Review Board more than four years.

“We’re watchdogs,” Taggart said. “We’re there to be sure kids are being treated as God intended them to be treated.”

Taggart said cases can be overwhelming, but the duty is significant.

“If you overlook something, something bad can happen, either to a DHS person or to a child or to a parent,” Taggart said. “We’re not attorneys. We’re not police. We’re not jurists. Yet, we work with all of them – and closely.”

In 2016, the Malheur County board conducted 72 reviews involving 101 children. The board met on 11 days, spending an average of 37 minutes per case –the state average for such reviews. In 2017, the board had 83 reviews involving 136 children, and met on 13 days.

Circuit Court Judge Lung Hung arranged for a reporter from the Malheur Enterprise to sit in on the normally confidential sessions of the review board. The newspaper agreed not to disclose any identifying information about the children or their parents.

The meetings occur in the pallid atmosphere of a government conference room in Ontario.

The four citizens sit beside each other on one side of a constellation of long tables. Nichols acts as convener. As each case opens, the state caseworker comes in and sits across from the citizen reviewers. Beside the worker is a file, sometimes a foot tall or higher, a measure of how much work goes into caring for a single child in the state’s jurisdiction.

For one case, two attorneys entered as well. One represented the child, a second the mother. They are paid by the public, appointed by a state judge. A third attorney calls in, representing the father. The parents don’t appear.

Besides asking questions, the board members offer observations or make suggestions.

They close each review reading out loud and then answering a scripted series of questions meant to keep the system focused on doing what’s best for the child. They are focused on the state Department of Human Services – DHS – that operates the foster care program.

“Has DHS made diligent efforts to place the child with a relative or a person who has a caregiver relationship?” is one question. “Has DHS ensured that appropriate services are in place to safeguard the child’s safety, health and well being?” comes next.

The questions are a way for these ordinary citizens to make sure government is doing what it’s supposed to do. If necessary, they can recommend changes in how a child is being treated.

In another case, a mother joins the review by telephone. She couldn’t get a ride to the meeting. The citizens hear what she’s doing to find a new home so she can get her children back. The board members are encouraged, and they are encouraging.

“You’re doing great,” John Taggart said as the review comes to a close.

In February, Taggart and others on the board met over two days to consider 15 cases.

“With all of the turmoil statewide in the child welfare system, the citizen review board provides an important check-and-balance on the system to encourage good case work and a high level of representation for these children who do not have a voice,” Nichols said.

BY THE NUMBERS....

Citizen Review Boards in Oregon:

Board members: 281

Hours served: 29,013

Reviews conducted: 3,364

Children involved: 4,503

TO VOLUNTEER.......

Contact John Nichols, field coordinator: [email protected]

The process:

Submit an application

Criminal history, court records check done

Field manager schedules an interview

Time to observe a Citizen Review Board

Time to observe local juvenile court

Online training, 12 hours in-person orientation

Appointment by presiding circuit court judge

Approval by Oregon Supreme Court chief justice

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