Choosing what works

When the foster care system was failing, local agencies found a better way

Critics of government can find plenty of examples of programs that fail to achieve their stated goals and waste public money in the process. So it's worth taking note when government officials see an approach that's not working and switch to one that does.

Today's case in point is Oregon's foster care system, or more specifically a new approach pioneered in Jackson County that is now expanding statewide and may become a national model.

For years, the state system presumed that separating children from their parents was the best way to protect them from dysfunctional homes plagued by drug addiction and neglect. The result was a state with one of the highest numbers of foster children in the country.

Most of those children never were adopted. Instead, they were shuttled through a succession of temporary foster homes until they turned 18, then cut loose, many to fall into the same self-destructive patterns of substance abuse and crime that plagued their parents.

OnTrack Director Rita Sullivan, together with other local agencies, secured federal grants and tried a different approach. Rather than emphasize removing children from their homes, the new approach gives families the support they need to stay together.

Children who are removed from their homes are placed with another relative whenever possible, and reunited with their parents when it's safe for them to go home. Struggling parents are provided temporary stable housing, drug and alcohol counseling and parenting education.

The result: In five years, the number of Jackson County children in foster care has dropped by nearly half, from about 450 to 240.

Sullivan is quick to point out that in some cases — 20 percent to 30 percent — children must be removed from their homes for their own safety and cannot be returned because their parents are physically or sexually abusive. But the remaining 70 to 80 percent of parents, struggling with addiction and other problems, can benefit from help that strengthens their families and works to keep them intact.

Local social service providers say children who manage to stay with their parents have a better shot at breaking the cycle of drug abuse and crime. But the federal funding that made this result possible is running out.

A bill passed by the 2011 Legislature requires the state Department of Human Services and county agencies to implement programs that strengthen, preserve and reunify families by Oct. 1.

Local advocates hope the money saved by reducing the number of foster family placements can be redirected to continue the work that has succeeded in Jackson County. State budget writers should see that it happens.

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