The good they do: Foster parents shepherd children through troubled system
There was the child who ran down the hall, leapt into the air and kicked her in the chest. Another child wrapped both hands around her neck, choking the breath out of her while whispering "I kill you."
It's not the life most 70-year-old women would choose. But for the past eight years, Karen Raichart and her husband, Mike, also 70, have opened their Forest Grove home to 18 foster children — and everything that came with them, including difficult behavior.
"It's not willful disobedience," Mike said. "It's coming from their hard places. They're working out of that fight, flight or freeze part of their brain."
Fortunately, violent incidents are rare, said Karen, and in some ways easier to handle than heartbreaking confessions.
"Probably the most wrenching experience for me was hearing this story at night from a child who was crying," she said. "Hearing her tell me the story of what her father had done to her."
Even without such intense moments, foster parenting is time-consuming and challenging, Karen said: "But if not us, then who else?"
Like most foster parents, the Raicharts are committed, compassionate volunteers. Their work has transformed the lives of vulnerable youth.
"They treated us like their own children," said one of two grateful twin sisters the Raicharts fostered to adulthood (see accompanying story below).
"Mike and Karen have been my support and really my own family, the only one that I have," said another girl.
The challenge for Oregon's Department of Human Services and particularly its Child Welfare Division, which handles foster children, is to draw and support more foster parents — both "general" parents like the Raicharts, who are willing to love and care for any young strangers in need, and "child-specific" parents, who are related or known to the child or who take only certain ages or types of children.
That might get easier now that the Oregon Legislature just pumped $130 million into Child Welfare this last session, bringing its funding up to $1.07 billion — the biggest funding jump in four years.
In Washington County, where Child Welfare had a particularly turbulent 2016, it's perfect timing.
But will it be enough?
Even when the Child Welfare bureaucracy is functioning well, foster parenting is still a tough job.
In 2009, the Raicharts began the extensive home-certification process required of foster parents, including hours of training on topics such as food hoarding, trust issues, lying and accusations, extreme loyalty to birth parents and skewed perceptions that often go hand-in-hand with trauma.So the Raicharts felt prepared for the children — just not everything else.
"What you inherit is not just a child," said Karen. "You inherit their family, which you may or may not like very much because of what has been done to the child."
You also inherit a case worker, a lawyer, sometimes a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a home certifier, a doctor, a dentist and maybe an optometrist. And when families take more than one child — sometimes up to five or six — each brings their own entourage of government-ordered specialists.
"It's a nightmare of scheduling and keeping track of all that," said Karen. "And yet, it's a team effort — it has to be."
It didn't feel like a team to former Forest Grove School Board member Lonnie Winkler and his wife, Heather, who had a difficult experience in November 2015 when they agreed to foster two young siblings related to them.
With three sets of grandparents involved, the Winklers' foster children were taken to numerous weekly family visits, many unscheduled.
"I was basically a chauffeur," said Heather. "Either I had to be at home for them to be picked up by DHS to be transported for a visit or I had to meet somebody for a visit. It was constant."
"You could tell these kids just craved organization. They were dying for routine," said Lonnie.
The Winklers hadn't been trained to deal with numerous, combative family members. The siblings' case switched through three different caseworkers in just six months. Communication became messy, leaving the Winklers feeling like they had zero support.
Living in offices
Bridget Faherty remembers that time. Faherty, who worked with Forest Grove foster families, was a Washington County caseworker in Child Welfare's Beaverton office (there's another in Hillsboro) from January 2014 to November 2016.
When she started, Faherty said, the office was doing relatively well. It was close to meeting most of the federal and state assessment standards. Faherty felt it was the most fulfilling job she'd ever had.
Then in May 2015, the state transferred 18 Washington County caseworkers to other offices with higher caseloads, leaving the county with less than 100 caseworkers.
It felt like punishment after a year of success, Faherty said.
The staff reduction came right as other problems popped up. In 2016, after five years of caseloads decreasing statewide (by 16.5 percent overall), they unexpectedly increased, by 4.1 percent. In Washington County, more children began entering foster care than leaving it.
At the same time, about 50 percent more "general" foster homes in the county closed than were certified.
And at the state level, 38 beds were lost in Behavioral Rehabilitation Services (BRS), a program for foster children with debilitating behavioral, emotional and psychosocial disorders.
Caseworkers frantically searched for appropriate homes. Faherty was overloaded.
Unable to find foster-care placements right away, she and her colleagues sometimes housed children in their offices or hotels. They'd volunteer for extra shifts after their regular day, taking a break for an hour or two, then spending the night with the children and working another full shift the next day.
"Some people were doing it every week or every weekend," said Faherty, noting that comfortable cots in office spaces were actually better for children than hotels, with plenty of toys, a kitchenette, and space for children to play.
"It's unfortunate nobody gets to see all the good work caseworkers are doing — how impossibly hard their jobs are," Faherty said. "There are just so many phenomenal people on the ground floor. Everybody is so passionate about what they're doing."
But by November 2016, "It was sad to go to work," she said. "Everybody was feeling so defeated and so overworked. One of the reasons I quit working for DHS is that I felt like a failure every single day."
Faherty wasn't the only one. In 2016, Washington County's two Child Welfare offices (in Hillsboro and Beaverton) together recorded the third highest rate of turnover in the state — 24.4 percent.
Not enough homes
It wasn't just Faherty and her fellow caseworkers suffering. "I saw so many amazing foster parents crippled and burnt out. We knocked the legs out from under them just by overburdening them," she said.
The Winklers were one of those families. Their situation with DHS unraveled quickly after the kids arrived in 2015, leaving them exhausted and frustrated by the time the children left just six months later.
"You have to go through so many hoops and spend so much money getting your house to a point where they will let you do it," Lonnie said. "And then you take that loving, stable family and you dismantle it."
Even people whose experience with DHS is more positive can still be overwhelmed by the number of children needing help — especially in "general" foster families.
That's because even children who end up in a child-specific home must first go to a general foster home if a relative hasn't yet been found or certified — which happens about 70 percent of the time.
In 2016 there were only 242 total certified foster homes for the 736 kids that spent at least one day in Washington County foster care. And only 106 of them were general homes.
"You get calls all the time," said Rachel Boyle, a foster parent in Sherwood. "Even a home that has five kids is still getting called for two or three more."
There are just not enough foster homes to match the needs of foster children, which ideally include matches for religion, ethnicity or medical fragility. Many children don't find a stable situation right away, if ever. Instead, they are shuffled from home to home.
"Every child that comes into foster care comes with baggage. And then they get the baggage of being in foster care," said Mike Raichart. "And the more foster placements, the more baggage."
That's why the federal government sets a standard rate of no more than 4.2 placement changes per every 1,000 days in foster care. Washington County has not met that rate since 2012, with that number climbing until it peaked in December 2016 at 7.7 placement changes per 1,000 days.
Help is on the way
This year, the Oregon Legislature took action to increase the number of foster parents. It approved a 20 percent increase to the base rate of reimbursement for food, school supplies, clothing and other expenses. That's the first increase since a 10 percent decrease in 2011.
In addition, the Legislature approved $750,000 for "foster parent supports," which will address their most pressing needs, as determined by a committee.
The Legislature also approved funding for 229 new BRS beds, said Andrea Cantu-Schomus, DHS communication officer, and BRS providers will receive more money from the state overall — a net average increase of 16 percent.
Many children who should be placed at the higher level of BRS care remain in the regular foster system under the supervision of families ill-equipped to handle them, a statewide assessment found in 2016. That probably accounts for those two attacks on Karen Raichart. This increases the frequency of children shuffling from home to home and destabilizes foster homes, according to the assessment.
In addition, the Legislature will increase Child Welfare staffing, something it's been doing incrementally each biennium. But the division has never been fully funded, said Cantu-Schomus. In 2011, Child Welfare was staffed only enough to cover 67 percent of its workload. In 2013, that jumped to about 75 percent and to 83 percent this past July.
Those increases, however, have barely been enough to keep up with inflation and new policy or program changes, which might account for why federal and state evaluations show no improvement in Child Welfare's effectiveness despite improved funding.
The Legislature's latest funding boost should get staffing high enough to cover 91 percent of the workload.
In addition, there were some big personnel changes this month.
DHS got a new director, Fariborz Pakseresht, who seemed to acknowledge (in an interview with The Oregonian) that burnout and high turnover in Child Welfare were factors in caseworkers leaving children in unsafe homes — an error at the heart of a $7 million lawsuit that was just settled last month and a $9.5 million lawsuit that was just filed.
Barely a week after arriving, Pakseresht appointed Marilyn Jones, a manager for Child Welfare's Baker City district, to head the statewide office. Apart from her work experience, Jones has a rare inside view of the system: She and her family formerly provided respite care for foster parents, then became a foster family themselves, hosting a total of 11 foster children and adopting two of them.
What about goodbye?
The Raicharts have each considered leaving the program at times. But somehow, one of them has always been strong enough to help push the other through any weak moments.
They've learned to expect the worst, remain utterly flexible, and be prepared to let go at a moment's notice.For all the challenges of foster parenting, it's still painful when the children are placed elsewhere or adopted.
"The hardest part is seeing kids go away," said Karen.
The Winklers didn't get to say goodbye. In April 2016, their foster siblings left for a short visit with their mother and ended up staying with her. No communication with the siblings was allowed after that and no one came to pick up the toys, clothes and memorabilia the Winklers had given them over their six-month stay. The Winklers and their two birth children were heartbroken.
A caseworker told Lonnie the mother had completed a rehab program and had made an abuse accusation against Heather, who denies the charge, which was investigated and never proven.
"The final outcome of this is the outcome everybody wanted: the kids went back to their mother," said Lonnie. "We're happy it turned out that way. The real issue is the path by which we got there."
The Raicharts had a similar experience when DHS feared Karen couldn't keep a pair of young girls safe from their birth father. After six months with the Raicharts, DHS suddenly whisked them away to a new placement, with no contact allowed afterward.
A sense of impermanence is vital for the sanity of parents, said Amie Boyer, who helps run the nonprofit the Foster Closet in Hillsboro and is a foster mother to newborn babies, many of whom are born addicted to drugs. Placements often don't last, even when a foster family is hoping to adopt, she said.
The Raicharts' latest foster child, a teenager who asked not to be named, said she considers the Raicharts her only real family: "It's just hard to actually imagine leaving."
Her photograph will join many others on a wall in the Raicharts' study, where they hang photos of every child they've fostered. And Mike has crafted a memory box for the teen to take with her, sanded smooth and filled with trinkets commemorating her time with them.
Though difficult, the Raicharts know an adoption with siblings is the best outcome an uncertain system offers once the option of returning home is gone."
We don't have to see how it's all going to end, we don't have to see the success of it," said Karen. "We just have to demonstrate mercy and compassion to these children."
Foster parents help twins out of tumultuos setting
Kristin LeGan has a message for children in difficult foster homes. "Don't give up. There is someone out there who cares about you."
She's speaking from experience. From age 16 to 21, she and her twin sister, Terra, lived in the care of foster parents Karen and Mike Raichart in Forest Grove. The experience transformed their lives.
Before arriving at the Raicharts, the girls had been homeless off and on, switching schools and residences yearly with parents who abused substances, staying in overcrowded rooms in other people's houses.
When they were 14, their mother died and their father moved them to live in the Portland area with his new wife.
At 16, doctors determined the girls were both on the autism spectrum. But their father and stepmother seemed skeptical of the diagnosis, Terra said. "I'd say they were sick people," she said.
Doctors at Oregon Health & Science University alerted the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) to their deteriorating situation and the sisters were eventually placed with Mike and Karen.
"We've had to deal with a lot of changes growing up, but that was the change I feel like Kristin and I really needed," said Terra. "They treated us like their own children."
Mike and Karen provided support and stability the twins lacked; they attended school events, drove them to appointments, helped them with their homework, and gave personal advice.
It wasn't easy at first. There were seemingly endless court dates, visits with caseworkers and office visits.
"At the time we didn't even know why we'd been put in foster care," said Terra. "That's part of why it was all confusing. It's something that's beyond our control."
"Even now we're being treated for PTSD," said Terra.
After living on quicksand, solid ground can take some getting used to. But with help from the Raicharts, the sisters grew towards independence, they said. Now 23, they share an apartment not far from their former foster parents.
Quoting the Rolling Stones, Terra smiled. "You can't always get what you want … sometimes you get what you need."
'No one should start the journey alone'
For foster families, community or family support is essential.
Karen and Mike Raichart find it in their church family and in the certified respite care providers who give them and other foster parents a break.
Respite care is key, said Rachael Boyle, a Sherwood resident and foster parent for seven years. She encourages people who support foster care but don't want to take on the job 24-7 to get certified to provide respite care, she said.
"Time is the biggest thing from the community that would help out," said Boyle. "The manpower and time to take care of these kids."
"The support piece is really critical," said Multnomah County foster mother Jilliana Goble. "We believe people doing foster care should really have a village around them. No one should start the journey alone because it can be really isolating."
Some foster families are taking matters into their own hands.
After fostering in Multnomah County for years, Goble recognized a crucial need for increased community support of the struggling foster system. In 2012, she created Embrace Oregon, a nonprofit aiming to help foster children and families.
Partnering with the state's Department of Human Services (DHS), Embrace Oregon relieves some of the burden on caseworkers, providing "welcome boxes" and "office buddies" to children who've just entered the system and are waiting on a placement. The office buddies spend one-on-one time with children waiting in DHS offices. Otherwise they might be supervised by a caseworker busy with paperwork.
"It's a very grassroots community way of connecting (to) real needs of real kids in real time," said Goble.
Embrace Oregon also recruits foster families and works with other organizations and churches to organize supportive events.
"We want to offer people a variety of ways to get involved," said Goble. "Yes, foster parents are needed, but everything is needed."
The Foster Closet in Hillsboro is another nonprofit started by foster parents.
"Oftentimes kids come into care with nothing but maybe the clothes on their back," said Amie Boyer, a founding member of the Closet, which provides free new and secondhand clothes and school supplies to children of foster parents, both biological and foster.
The whole family sacrifices to foster, said Boyer.
Foster families receive government reimbursement for the foster child's expenses but it's often not enough to cover new shoes, school supplies, computers and athletic fees, she said.
"We've struggled at the Foster Closet — we're just a bunch of moms and foster moms," said Boyer. "We don't have a whole lot of time to get out there and raise awareness."
The Foster Closet is also a gathering place, a community where parents commiserate and seek support, especially new parents who can find experienced families to talk to, said Boyer.
For three-and-a-half years, Boyle has sat on a Foster Parent Advisory Committee that meets with several local DHS Child Welfare department leaders.
In the past six to eight months she's seen DHS begin listening more to the concerns and needs of foster parents.
"They've really changed their focus and they really are listening now," said Boyle. "It's harder and harder to keep and get foster parents and they're realizing they have to make some changes to make that happen."
"We don't want to negate the reality that there can be challenges in foster parenting. There can be real frustration. But we really believe there is good that is happening," said Goble. "There are really incredible people working for DHS."
And she noted the benefits of foster care don't just extend to foster children — foster care has benefited her biological family, too.
"Foster care has really paved a road of compassion for my children," Goble said. "They have a deeper understanding of the world around them.