Oregon's new foster care director hopes to 'transform' system
Adopted out of foster care as a baby, Rebecca Jones Gaston will now oversee the welfare of thousands of Oregon kids in similar situations.
Jones Gaston was born in Minnesota and raised in Iowa. After an East Coast education and more than two decades of work in social services, she will take the helm of the embattled child welfare program of the Oregon Department of Human Services.
The agency has intensely criticized in audits and legislative hearings for failing to adequately care for some of Oregon's most vulnerable kids.
The child welfare program has been run by four directors since 2016.
Marilyn Jones, the most recent director, retired in June after the state was the target of a class-action lawsuit over its treatment of kids with complex needs and was caught sending children to facilities in other states with little oversight.
Gov. Kate Brown earlier this year declared a crisis in foster care and convened a board of top-level state executives and other experts to meet behind closed doors to find a fix, bringing on high-priced consultants to help.
Jones Gaston, who is currently the executive director of the Social Services Administration for the Maryland Department of Human Services, will begin her Oregon post Nov. 4.
She has worked for the state of Maryland since 2016, serving as deputy executive director before rising to executive director of the Social Services Administration. Before that, she worked in a division of Casey Family Programs that helped states and counties improve child services.
In an interview Wednesday, she said she intends to tackle her new post with a sense of urgency. "Everything that we do absolutely impacts children and families on a day-to-day basis, and we need to keep that in mind, because it is life-impacting," Jones Gaston said. "And it is our responsibility to make sure that we are moving forward thoughtfully, but also, really intentionally paying attention to the need for change to happen in ways that don't drag on and on and on, or this change of personnel having an impact on being able to have outcomes improve."
About 7,000 kids are in the state's care on any given day.
In Maryland, Jones Gaston led an effort to return to Maryland kids sent to other states for care. The number of Maryland kids placed out of state in three and a half years dropped from 68 to 18.
Jones Gaston said that she worked with other government agencies and providers to find what kids needed, figured out the gaps in services and found ways to provide services locally.
She arranged for special emergency spending and worked within the agency to put up a "speed bump" — an extra layer of review — before sending children out of state.
In late August, Jones Gaston visited Oregon, meeting with people involved in the foster care system, ranging from legislators to foster youth, as well as Brown.
In a statement, a spokesman for Brown said the governor is "impressed with Rebecca's vision and leadership experience in the child welfare arena, and is pleased that she will bring those experiences to Oregon with the commitment of improving outcomes for our children and families."
Asked what the biggest challenge might be, Jones Gaston pointed to the "interconnected" issues that the state has been grappling with lately, including the lawsuit, the out-of-state placements and the need for more places in Oregon for kids and families to get help.
"I think that really is where the top priority needs to be focused on — how to remedy that, but in conjunction with building and transforming the system itself," Jones Gaston said.
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