Oregon Foster Families First is launching a campaign to lobby Gov. Brown and the state legislature to act on foster care policy issues

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: SAM STITES - The Rummell-West family poses for a photo in a park near their Villebois home in Wilsonville. From left: Paul Rummell, JayQuan Rummell-West (with Olive the dog) and Ben West. Wilsonville-based nonprofit Oregon Foster Families First is turning up the heat on Oregon's elected leaders to take action in helping the thousands of children across the state who are languishing in the state's foster care system.

Oregon Foster Families First (OFFF) was established earlier this year by local foster care activists and marriage equality champions Ben West and Paul Rummell. Rummell works in sustainable energy while West is a full-time nurse who is seeking a spot on the Wilsonville City Council in the November election. This bid comes on the heels of two previous unsuccessful campaigns: one for the U.S. Congressional seat held by Rep. Kurt Schrader, the other a write-in campaign for Wilsonville mayor.

While West identifies as Republican and Rummell a Democrat, the pair hope to create an approach through OFFF that is uniquely bipartisan. The group is currently launching a campaign to bring action and policy changes to Oregon through education and proposed legislation.

The 501C4 nonprofit social welfare organization released an advertisement last month criticizing the leadership of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on the issue of Oregon's foster care system, stating that the system has reached a boiling point of neglect, abuse and inaction under her watch.

"Our aim with this multifaceted campaign is to create the awareness and pressure to hold accountable our state's leadership," West said. "This is an issue of life and death, and our children must be a priority."

The ad features the West-Rummell family in their Wilsonville home — including their 12-year-old son JayQuan, whom the couple began fostering in 2012 and eventually adopted in 2014 — talking about current systemic issues within the Oregon foster care system.

While the advertisement calls out Brown by name, Rummell and West acknowledge that issues within the state's foster care system are systemic, and they didn't start with Brown. However, they feel the buck stops with the executive office, and whilst in power, Brown should be doing more to provide funding and resources that promote safe, stable homes for the thousands of children in Oregon's foster care system.

Their goal is to shed light on the issue while bringing attention to the audit released from Secretary of State Dennis Richardson's office earlier this year that found more than a decade of legislative programs and policies failed to deliver on promised change to the foster care system.

"We started this nonprofit because we feel if we don't stand up for these children, who will?" Rummell said. "Foster kids don't vote, they can't lobby, they don't really have a voice for themselves. We need to stand up for these children and the buck stops with our executive leadership."

One of the biggest keys to this change, according to Rummell and West, is to provide incentives for quality families to foster children and promote permanency within placement in homes and communities across the state.

The couple are modeling their approach after seeing how the community of Wilsonville has reacted to their family since adopting their son and the positivity it has brought into their lives. A large part of that success, they believe, can be attested to "wraparound services," meaning that communities take a team approach to improving the life and well-being of a foster child through strong family-building and access to support services. The idea is to use their influence as a nonprofit organization to connect foster families to services in their communities that will help ease the burden on foster parents and create key relationships to improve quality of life for foster children statewide. For example, a church that hosts a food pantry could be of huge benefit to a foster family struggling to make ends meet; organizations that repurpose new and donated clothing could provide foster families with a means to give their children clothes.

"The sense of community is at the heart of everyone. It's an American concept that we take care of our own. All people want is a little bit of guidance," Rummell said. "This community is participating in the care of our child whether they realize it or not. They're giving him a stable, loving environment to grow up in through doing an incredible job teaching

and coaching, being good neighbors and having sleepovers. It's an easy concept that we want to bring to more communities."

Living in Wilsonville over the past several years has been a blessing for the Rummell-West household. The small family of three feel they've been accepted with open arms and given a great environment to grow as a unit. Witnessing their own success, Rummell and West want to use their influence through OFFF to help the thousands of other children across the state who are in search of a good home find success as well.

"Through the education and coaching our son has received here in Wilsonville, he's becoming a more well-rounded person and his heart is healing. He can put his roots down deep, he can say he has his own family and community. He can identify with something and take pride in it. That was one of the biggest blessings Wilsonville has brought our family," West said. "If we can promote and support that type of environment in communities across the state, then I think that we can remove less kids from their homes, or make sure kids

that have to be removed, we can do our best to help them thrive."

OFFF's campaign also includes a number of policy and legislative changes aimed at helping the state recruit and maintain a strong bank of foster families that can support these children. The group hopes to lobby the state legislature and act as a mouthpiece for children in the foster system who don't have a voice.

One way they hope to do that is by increasing the amount of support services and financial help to foster families to incentivise quality households to take these children in. OFFF's strategies come in the wake of auditors finding that the state system — which has been marred by a slew of recent scandals and missteps, including a 2017 lawsuit over the death of an Albany teen in foster care — has no plan for recruiting foster families, nor data on exactly the number of families needed to meet current demand. Rummell and West hope to find a way to use in-state college tuition vouchers for both foster children and biological children of foster parents as a way to recruit and maintain quality families. The idea is that foster families would be rewarded for providing a good home and fulfilling a service to the public.

Another one of the group's priorities will be to improve staffing levels within the Oregon Department of Human Services. Its goal is push DHS to fill 300 positions that have gone unfilled while also finding funding for an additional 100 positions within DHS to empower the agency to lower caseloads and meet the needs of foster families. OFFF hopes to accomplish this and other legislative issues within the coming years in order to bring rapid change to the state's foster care system.

"We believe there is no higher budget priority than protecting funding for foster families," Rummell and West state in their policy issues section of their website. "We expect

our lawmakers to commit to funding foster care first

ahead of any pet projects or non-essential government spending."

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