Pictured: Colena Wells holds a snapshot of her grandson, whom she looked after for two years after he was removed from his parents because of neglect. Next to her is her son, Irvin Rachal, who attends Franklin High School.
Child welfare cases are hardly ever clear-cut. And with state resources stretched to capacity, Oregon's foster care system is struggling to meet the needs of the children and the families it serves.
"Oregon's demand for foster care homes rose 11 percent in just one year, from 2003 to 2004, and more than half of all children coming into care now are from meth-involved households," states a new report from the nonprofit Fight Crime Invest in Kids Oregon. "This is not the time to cut federal funding by $22 million for Oregon's victims of abuse and neglect."
Last May, an independent review of Oregon's child welfare system, by Wayne Holder, a senior consultant for the National Resource Center for Child Protective Services, found that caseworkers and supervisors have too many cases and too many responsibilities. According to Holder's report, each worker routinely handles 20 cases. The Child Welfare League of America recommends that each case worker should handle no more than 12 to 15 cases. The review was commissioned after two high-profile cases where children were abused while in foster care.
Currently, the U.S. House of Representatives is discussing a federal budget proposal that would cut $600 million from foster care programs, including $22 million from foster care in Oregon over five years — from programs that support relatives caring for abused or negelected children.
"The system already is overstressed and not functioning as it should be," said Tina Kotek, policy director for the nonprofit advocacy group Children First For Oregon. "They are thinking of cutting those very important programs that make a real difference in the lives of children. We would argue that a better way to save money would be to not implement the $70 billion in new tax cuts for upper income Americans. Our argument is 'Don't take it out on kids.' "
Several families have contacted The Skanner to voice frustrationsin dealing with the foster care system. Colena Wells, grandmother to a foster child, has cared for her grandson for the last two years. Her grandson was removed from his parents at the age of four months, she said, because they were using crack. Initially Wells had to fight to get custody of her grandson, she said, but later caseworkers helped her.
"All I had from the case workers was praise," Wells said. "They said I was doing a wonderful job and I needed to adopt him. I work two jobs to take care of him and he was well taken care of. My sister took care of him when I was at work. And when I wasn't at work I was with him 24/7."
Wells said she was moving to become the 2 ½-year-old boy's legal guardian, until case workers removed him Nov. 4, citing reports that the child had been seen with his father, Wells' son.
Wells said the father has a warrant out for his arrest as a material witness in a murder case and she acknowledges that he has a criminal history that includes selling crack. But she says different case workers have set different rules about contact with her son — giving permission for him to attend the boy's birthday party and to be present at family holidays, for example.
Now, she said, she has little recourse, to challenge the DHS evidence or the decision to remove her grandson. And she chafes at the length of time it takes to get news of how her grandson is doing or to arrange a visit.
"He's thinking I just abandoned him and I know his mind is going to be messed up," she said. "Anybody can see he is grieving. I just don't know where to turn."
Wells cites several instances where she feels the case has been mishandled. One case worker, in particular, was "so rude to me. He was a cruel, cruel man." Wells said that case worker accused her of being a racist when she asked for her grandson to be placed with a Black family. Another worker challenged her veracity, asking her to swear on her Bible. And another worker told her that her grandson 'belonged to the state of Oregon' and told her she would never regain custody.