A veteran of 15 years in child welfare, Penny Esser has never weathered a tougher climate for the work to which she's so devoted – recruiting foster parents.
“It's as bad as I've seen,” said Esser, who's based in Medford, Ore. “We are really at a critical shortage – we're crowding the foster homes that we have.”
Even in good times, recruitment is challenging.
Now, amid epic economic turmoil, the challenge is aggravated – especially in states like Oregon, where payment rates to foster parents fall below what's needed.
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“It's the fear factor that's keeping some people from even applying,” said Don Darland, who heads the Oregon Foster Parent Association.
Darland, a quadriplegic, is a retired Marine officer. He said he and his wife have been foster parents for 18 years, caring over that span for about 60 children, many with physical or emotional problems.
Retention is a problem in Oregon, with a need to replace at least 60 percent of the foster parents every two years, Darland said.
“It's always been a problem even in the best of times – and it's probably going to get worse before it gets better,” said Lauri Stewart, a spokeswoman for Oregon's Department of Human Services. “People are being pinched hard.”
Stewart said the number of foster homes in Oregon has remained relatively steady in recent years but too low to provide optimal care. The consequences, she said, include assigning multiple children to each home and settling for less-than-desirable matches for special-needs and minority children.
There's particular concern about the financial struggles of foster parents caring for special-needs children with serious emotional problems.
“The level of therapeutic needs for some kids is pretty high,” said Joe Kroll of the North American Council on Adoptable Children. “As we go into economic downturns, we start to lose some of those supports.”
Foster parent Susan Bell is wrestling with that very issue.
She and her husband already have two teenage foster sons in their home in Portland, and case workers are pleading with them to take more – including one youth who sexually molested a sibling and another who stabbed his mother.
“Are we wanting to tackle that with the amount of reimbursement we're getting? It's a heavy subject,” said Bell. “We realize the amount of supervision these kids require. … Generally, what's foremost on our minds is, ‘Can we financially continue to do this?'”
Bell, 58, said the state pays $512 a month for each of the boys now in their home – not enough to cover the surging costs of providing for them.
“Teenage boys don't eat a little bowl of cereal – they eat a mixing-bowl size,” Bell said.
For now, she and her husband are wary of taking on more children, despite the state's entreaties.
“If you take in a 14-year-old, you're looking at a four-year commitment, even if things worsen economically,” Bell said. “It's a 24-7 job that definitely has its rewards, but there is an emotional and financial cost.”
Esser also is seeking new solutions. She works for Oregon's Child Welfare Division in Jackson County, where about 325 children are in foster care – up from 200 five years ago.
Groping for new recruitment tactics, Esser recently went through a local directory, found the names of 134 places of worship in Jackson County, and issued an appeal.
“My challenge was, ‘Every church, one foster family,'” she said. “If we got every church to recruit one family out of their congregation, we'd be in really good shape.”