The 7,800 Oregon children in foster care likely never heard of Marilyn Jones but the fate of each one rests in her hands.

She’s responsible to see they get to school, receive medical care, and are safe. Her duty is to protect them from dangerous or abusive adults. And she is charged with fixing families so kids can move out of foster homes and back in with parents.

Jones is the child welfare program director in the state Department of Human Services. She is the state’s lead executive when it comes to caring for Oregon’s children.

Last October, she took charge of a bureaucracy that reaches into every corner of Oregon, including Malheur County. She knows child welfare inside and out. She served as the district manager in Baker City, but also was an adoptive and foster mom. She knows what it’s like to need and to provide respite care for overloaded foster parents.

And she found a state system inadequate to its charge.

“We’re understaffed and overworked in the field,” Jones said in a recent interview with the Malheur Enterprise. “Our social workers are exhausted. Our whole staff is exhausted.”

The state system faced critical audits that questioned virtually every phase of service to endangered children. At the same time, state officials signed off on million-dollar settlements to resolve lawsuits over children abused by foster parents.

In Malheur County, state officials have been confronting a surge in children needing state protection. The area is short of foster parents, child advocates, and other volunteers needed to help often bewildered children.

Jones and her team traveled the state in recent months, listening to state workers, foster parents and others helping children.

“We first apologized to our staff for the amount of work we’ve put on them, for the lack of support they’ve been receiving,” Jones said.

She’s finding ways to relieve case workers of tasks that take away from time sitting face-to-face with children or working with parents to change living circumstances so children don’t have to be removed.

The help coming from Salem is big and small.

State officials earlier this year created 186 new jobs for Jones’ program. Last year, her agency was losing employees faster than it could hire them. Now, Jones said, that’s been reversed. A focus has been on administrative support, getting paperwork and other office duties off the desk of social workers.

The new hires are being phased in through early next year.

“We’re turning the tide, but it’s not fast enough,” Jones said.

Jones recalled at one meeting hearing that field workers themselves had to fill out a particular form, that they couldn’t have an assistant handle it.

“I came back to the office that night and found there was no reason we couldn’t change that policy,” Jones said.

She also pared back other dictates. At the time she arrived, state workers dispatched to a possible report of abuse had to complete complicated assessments. That isn’t always necessary, Jones said.

She recalled one winter when her Baker City office got a call.

“We were told that we had a family up in the Sumpter area that didn’t have food, didn’t have water, didn’t have electricity,” Jones said. “We drove to Sumpter. We got into an Arctic Cat to meet this family. When we got there, they had food, water and heat. We still had to do a full assessment.”

State workers now can do abbreviated assessments – freeing up more time to work with families and children truly in peril, she said.

Jones is determined to drive down the number of children put into state care. She wants caseworkers to use the time once spent on paperwork sitting down with troubled families.

“The most important thing for me is to figure out what services are need and wrap that around the family so the kids can stay home,” Jones said. “We need to be able to talk about keeping kids at home.”

She said also wants her agency to work better with foster parents. She heard on her tour from foster parents who were frustrated by the state’s rigid rules for how children should be cared for.

“They were saying, ‘Let us have a voice in how we care for these kids. Listen to what we have to say,’” Jones said.

Jones said citizens across Oregon can help fix the system, too. Individuals can donate to buy packets of personal items for children going into foster care. They can adopt a foster family, helping with respite care or simple tasks such as grocery shopping, Jones said. And seniors can be “visitation grandparents,” volunteering to entertain children brought into state offices right after they have been removed from their homes.

“Not everybody can be a foster parent,” Jones said. “But everybody can help.”

Les Zaitz: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.