'Crisis' in Oregon foster care system forcing children in motels and offices instead of homes

According to the department of Human Services, Oregon's foster care system has lost the equivalent of 400 beds in family homes and 100 beds in residential facilities in the last two years. (KPTV)

A crisis in Oregon's foster care system is leaving some children in the state's care with no place to go, and the problem is becoming so bad that state workers say they're now housing children in their own offices or even motels.

The Bonham family tells FOX 12 they open their home to Portland children in need, at all hours of the night.

"For us, over last two years, 35 kids have come through our home," foster parent Kat Bonham said.

The Bonhams just had a little girl of their own but are also emergency shelter foster parents. Kids stay with them right after they are taken into state custody until the Department of Human Services figures out what to do next.

"A majority of them come through in late night phone calls because they've been moved from their home or a traumatic situation, and a police officer or a case worker drops them at our door,” Bonham explained. “Often times it's in the middle of night."

She said that this year the need is much bigger than she ever imagined.

"We transitioned a group of siblings out of our home on Sunday of this week, and Monday about noon time I was called and asked to take more children," Bonham said. "Often times before I even have time to change the sheets, I'm asked to take another set."

DHS officials tell FOX 12 over the last two years, Oregon's foster care system has lost the equivalent of 400 beds in family homes and 100 beds in residential facilities.

In 2015, DHS said they had an average of about 7,500 children in state care.

"Things are really hard, really hard at work right now for everybody," Patty Cooper said.

Cooper was a DHS case worker for 29 years, retiring from her position as the Supervisor of the Beaverton Adolescent Unit about two weeks ago, in part, she said, because of the foster placement crisis.

She said it came to a head when caseworkers couldn't find anywhere for children to go.

"It started with one or two children that didn't have a placement, and they stayed in our office," Cooper recalled. "That first night we all pitched in and bought pizza for the kids. People really rallied behind them being here, and since then it's just grown."

She said Washington County case workers were totally unprepared for what happened next and made the rules up as they went because nothing like this has ever happened before.

Cooper said workers eventually wound up housing young children and teens in motels - sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks – adding that the workers all took turns watching kids after hours and over weekends.

"One weekend there was a convention in town and it was hard to find any motel. So, we ended up in a motel over on Evergreen," said Cooper.

When motels got to be too expensive for the state, Cooper said they made the call to house children in their Tigard Visitation Center. The stress that put on kids, she said, sometimes caused problems.

"One of the children had just lost control and she was scaring the other children, so I ended up taking some children to the office, while staff there tried to calm her down," she said.

Cooper said she reached her boiling point, so on her last day of work she wrote a lengthy email expressing her feelings and sent it out to everyone.

"We have to speak out, I want to speak out," she wrote.

STORY EXTRA: Read Patty Cooper's full email

Her intention, she said, was not to bash DHS but rather to shine a light on the real challenges case workers face every day. She believes it's a community-wide problem and DHS should not shoulder all of the blame.

"Staff from many places in the state have called me a hero, but I think they're the heroes," Cooper said. "People have said they posted the email on their wall in their cubicle. I think it just meant a lot to have someone speak out."

"DHS shouldn't be the ‘be all,’ it's historical that when no one else has anything to offer, they turn their heads to DHS and say, 'What's DHS gonna do,'" Cooper added. "The question needs to be, what are we going to do?"

DHS officials told FOX 12 that on average, six foster children a week state-wide spend at least one night in a hotel or child welfare office, though Cooper contended they've housed about that many kids in Washington County alone.

Department leaders said they're working to find more placement resources, along with both long-term and short-term solutions to the problem.

They said the bottom line, though, is that they need more foster parents.

People like the Bonhams, who say for them it wasn't a question of how can they help, but how could they not.

"I think one thing that stops people is fear, or wondering how it will affect their family, their kids, their extended family, or their relationship with their partner," Bonham said. "But, what I've learned in my time is that I have been given more by having kids in my home."

How can someone become learn more or become a foster parent?

The application and certification process to become a certified foster parent or relative caregiver varies slightly from county to county but to begin the process of becoming a foster parent or relative caregiver, do one of the following: Call 1-800-331-0503. A foster care specialist will answer your initial questions and give you the contact name of a DHS contact in your county, or Complete and submit the online form. Someone will contact you and provide you with more information about foster care, or Contact your local DHS Child Welfare office. Some counties offer an orientation to provide you with the information you will need to decide if foster parenting is right for you.If you're in the Portland Metro area you can contact Embrace Oregon, a group which connects community members with children and families in need, on their website EmbraceOregon.org, at 503-281-1801, by email at info@embraceoregon.org or on their Facebook page.

Copyright 2016 KPTV-KPDX Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.


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