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Foster care project positive, but not enough

A pilot project to place at-risk children with volunteer parents in an attempt to keep them out of foster care is well-meaning, and a bright spot in an otherwise troubled child welfare system. But it is not and cannot be the solution Oregon’s foster-care system needs.

The three-year program is being administered locally by Hearts with a Mission, a nonprofit organization that operates a Medford youth shelter. The project launched in 12 Oregon counties, following the national Safe Families model.

The approach is encouraging. Biological parents experiencing challenges in their lives, from joblessness to substance abuse, can agree to place their children with volunteers who will take them into their homes temporarily, offering a stable family environment and allowing the biological parents space to focus on finding a job or stable housing, or dealing with addiction or a short jail sentence. When successful, these arrangements may prevent children from being taken from their biological parents involuntarily and placed in the state foster care system.

That system has been plagued with problems for a long time. An audit by the secretary of state’s office in 2018 found the system in disarray and children’s safety at risk. The state now is embroiled in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of 10 foster children for allegedly violating their rights under the U.S. Constitution. After attempts to reach a settlement failed in early summer, the state Department of Human Services and Gov. Kate Brown filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the state already is addressing the system’s shortcomings and federal courts should not dictate state actions on foster care.

Among the problems are a lack of foster homes, leading to children being sent to care facilities out of state, where some allegedly suffered abuse. A state report this year showed a decline in the already inadequate number of foster homes. Those are homes where the state reimburses foster parents for the cost of caring for children.

If the state cannot find enough foster parents to meet the demand under those terms, it’s hard to imagine that the Safe Families pilot project will attract enough volunteers to make much of a dent in the number of families who need help to avoid being swept up in the foster care system.

Those who do volunteer deserve praise and all the support the community can offer. Ultimately, though, the state must step up and adequately fund the child welfare system. The 2019 Legislature increased funding to DHS, and the agency said it would hire more than 300 additional caseworkers — one of the deficiencies repeatedly cited by critics. But in a July report, the department said it was losing half as many caseworkers as it added.

If the Safe Families pilot shows positive results, the Legislature should consider more funding for it, including stipends for volunteer parents. Children are a precious resource who deserve every chance to grow up in healthy, stable homes.