Rebecca Jones Gaston (Contributed photo)

Rebecca Jones Gaston stepped into one of the state’s biggest crises in 2019, taking over the Oregon agency charged with safeguarding children.

Nearly 18 months later, Jones Gaston is optimistic.

She is director of the state Child Welfare Division, where reforms are taking hold.

Fewer children go to foster care.

More caseworkers are on duty watching over children abused or at risk of being abused. 

And citizens calling a hotline to report suspected abuse now reach someone in about two minutes – far quicker than once was standard.

“I’m really hopeful for 2021, that we continue to get some traction on those things that are in motion,” Jones Gaston said.

She assayed the agency’s performance in a wide-ranging interview with the Malheur Enterprise. Gov. Kate Brown appointed her director in September 2019, just four months after Brown publicly acknowledged the state’s system for caring for children was failing.

At that time, the agency was assailed in audits and news reports and by state legislators for sending Oregon children to sometimes questionable foster homes in other states or putting them up in motels with state workers.

Field workers dealing directly with families in trouble were overwhelmed with heavy caseloads, their ranks too thin for the work that needed to be done.

Jones Gaston’s reforms are driven by a “Vision for Transformation.” The elaborate plan aims to shift her agency to support “the individual needs of families and best serves Oregon’s children and young people.”

“Maybe we’re a quarter of the way there,” Jones Gaston said. “There are places here we do really well and places where there is some room to grow.”

Brown wasn’t available for an interview, but her spokesman agreed.

“We have made great improvements in the last two years and are no longer in crisis,” said Charles Boyle of Brown’s communications staff. “Oregonians don’t have to take our word for it – they can see for themselves in the numbers.”

Among those key numbers:

• In December, 6,174 Oregon children were in foster care, the lowest number in 14 years.

• Children sent out of state for foster care dropped from 88 in March 2019 to none by July 2020.

• Caseworker ranks have grown from 1,401 in February 2019 to 1,579 in February 2021 – a 13% increase.

Jones Gaston said the shift away from routinely resorting to foster placements has been profound.

She said her agency’s workers are working toward being better equipped “to serve more and more kids at home safely with their parents without having to have the trauma of separation. That’s the core of everything we’ve been focused on.”

Jones Gaston is a bit of a data geek, and views numbers as crucial to guiding her agency. She wants the state to be nimble about “course corrections” – reacting more swiftly than government often does to changing circumstances.

She pays particularly attention to details about calls coming into the state hotline – there were 11,818 in December. Jones Gaston monitors wait times, how fast the agency reacts to reported abuse, and what steps it takes. She said she watches the numbers to detect where “more attention or different strategies” might be needed.

Too often in the past, she said, data was logged because it was required and wasn’t used by anyone but agency executives. Now, Jones Gaston said those statistics are used “at all levels” to drive action.

“People aren’t afraid of it,” she said.

Jones Gaston noted that the hiring surge in the past year or so has given the agency a younger and inexperienced staff. She is particularly watchful over the caseworkers.

“It’s a hard job. It’s a really tough job,” Jones Gaston said.

The agency is sharpening training and considering other steps to make workers feel they are getting the help they need to care for children on their watch.

Boyle noted caseworkers now get training on youth suicide prevention, the impacts of chronic neglect and safe sleep practices.

She said the agency is looking at what deters people from taking a job at the agency – about 7% of its jobs are vacant – or leads employees to quit.

She also said the agency’s new vision is to tackle what it calls “disproportionality” in actions affecting families in communities of color.

“Children and families from communities of color are more likely to be reported to our child abuse hotline,” she said.

The agency’s response has been too standardized, not reflecting cultural differences and ending up with “outcomes that are poorer,” Jones Gaston said.

“We’re having regular conversations and some tough ones with our leadership around the places that structural racism is showing up,” Jones Gaston said.

She said her agency has been more deliberate about having minority communities represented on advisory committees and elsewhere.

“We don’t have it all figured out,” she said. “We’ve got room to grow there.”

Boyle said Brown has made child issues a priority in her proposals for the state’s 2021-23 budget, now being considered by the Legislature.

That includes $4.6 million to create a new unit – Family Preservation and Preservation Services – to focus on “high risk families” and relying more on local services.

Jones Gaston also wants to see state agencies work more in unison to serve families that need help, something she considers “absolutely possible. It’s going to take some hard work.”

NOTE: Oregon’s toll-free Child Abuse Hotline is 1-855-503-SAFE (7233) – Callers can report abuse of any child 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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