Oregon Needs More and Better Foster Parents. And Those Foster Parents Need to Organize.

Chip Shields

To change the system, let foster parents bargain collectively.

Tomorrow’s Oregonian has another truly horrific story about foster care in Oregon:

According to the civil rights suit filed in December 2007 in U.S. District Court, Kaylie and Jordan Collins were kept in makeshift cages -- cribs covered with chicken wire secured by duct tape -- in a darkened bedroom known as "the dungeon."

The brother and sister often went without food, water or human touch, according to the suit. The boy, who had a shunt put into his head at birth to drain fluid, didn't receive medical attention and resorted to hitting his head against his crib to relieve the pressure. When police and child welfare workers rescued the twins from the Gresham foster home, he was nearly comatose.

The story underlines for me that Oregon needs to recruit, and more importantly, retain, more and better foster parents.  And we can recruit all the well-qualified foster parents we want, but we will lose them just as quickly as we recruited them unless they start getting the support and training they deserve to make a truly healing home for Oregon’s most wounded kids.


My wife Shelda and I were foster parents until our daughter was born.  And in my three terms in the Oregon legislature, I’ve seen that foster parents are outgunned by the other groups fighting for funding in the Department of Human Services and Oregon Youth Authority budgets.


That’s why I joined with a bipartisan group of legislators including Rep. Nick Kahl and Rep. Mitch Greenlick and the Oregon Foster Parent Association to introduce HB 2931, which will allow foster parents to organize and bargain collectively.  The Portland Tribune has the story on the bill here (Oregon Foster Parents.Seek a Place At the Budgeting Table).


It’s long past time to give foster parents the right to bargain collectively.  We will not fix our child welfare system until foster parents start getting the support and training they need.

And have you thought about becoming a foster parent?  You should.  It was the hardest thing Shelda and I have ever done.  But we’re so glad we did it.  Go here for DHS or here for Boys and Girls Aid Society.


Some of the more impressive work in foster care is happening through Peter Sprenglemeyer and the Oregon Social Learning Center.

Here's part of his presentation to the Public Safety Strategies Task Force that I chaired in the interim session:

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)

    1) What good does "organizing" human services like foster care do? The only leverage organized foster parents would have is withholding services -- a strike. Is that what you're seeking?

    2) I'm struck by your comment that you stopped fostering when your child was born? Why is that?

  • LT (unverified)

    How does the foster care system in Marion County differ from the system in other areas? From the neighborhood meetings I have attended, I have been impressed by how organized they are. Could it be that someone at the county level started a program which could be replicated elsewhere?

    There is the "Forever Home" concept which a Catholic group works with--something about buying a home and if there is a problem with the foster parents, the kids stay in the home (and thus in the same neighborhood and school) and the foster parents are changed. Heard about that once in a neighborhood meeting.

    Far cry from more than 4 decades ago when one of my sister's friends ( maybe a 5th grader ) was living with a single parent and that parent died. Our family ended up being a foster family until a permanent home was found for this girl.

    Oh, and the folks who keep bragging about being "pro-life", how many of them are foster parents? Anyone who has time to go to a "life" rally or stand on a street corner with a sign has the time to at the very least volunteer in some program for foster parent support if not be a foster parent themselves. There seem to be volunteer efforts organized (pajama bowl, collecting winter coats, etc.) which certainly need volunteers to help their efforts. How many churches are involved in supporting foster parents?

  • Stephan Andrew Brodhead (unverified)

    Maybe next we can put forth a collective bargaining bill for divorced mothers that get child support!

    Back to Foster parent collective bargaining:

    So if the bill passes and lets say 5 years down the road foster parents go on strike, where do the kids go, out on the street?

    Maybe they can be herded into a school gym with cotts or a soccer stadium!

  • Rulial (unverified)

    Mr. Seldes and Mr. Brodhead, line 16 of the proposed legislation says that "Foster parents may not strike."

  • David McDonald (unverified)

    What the people who read this blog need to understand is that there are as many adults living in Foster Care as there are children doing the same in Oregon.

    Focussing on children will certainly "touch your heart", but know these sorts of things happen to adults as regularly (if not more often) than they do with kids.

    Oh yeah... I wrote about this same story yesterday (within an hour of it coming out) but it still hasn't showed up on Leftyblogs. Hmmm....

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    There are certainly many things that need to be addressed in the current foster care system. I fail to see how a collective bargining unit of caregivers would address the heartwrenching situation rep Shields focus is placed in order to pull at heart strings.

    Please rep Shields; address the following:

    1. Can you show us any similar state foster care program that was improved through collective bargaining of the foster parents? If so please document the empirical data.
    2. Collective bargaining focus is mainly on working conditions, pay and benefits. Please help us understand how those three areas are going to make foster parent nightmares such as the one you focused on disappear.
    3. Since you state that legislative committment to the foster care system is wedged out by other factors, please tell us how collective bargaining would stem this tide without drastically increasing foster care cost.
    4. If you will be honest enough to state that this is really a canard aimed at creating yet more state unionized workers, please show how increasing costs to the system will eliminate such horrible situations as the one you describe.
    5. I've already aaumed that under your scenario, foster parents (like police and other emergency workers) would not have the ability to strike. However, IF in the future, organized foster parents could strike, how would you plan a back up for with held services?
    6. Certainly there are other, better approaches to improving foster care without unionization. Maybe you could investigate and report on these grassroots activities instead of resorting to increasing the size and cost of state government?
  • Stephan Andrew Brodhead (unverified)

    The question is: should Unions be entitled to money from Foster parents that would otherwise go to the Foster Child? Will Union dues be taken from the mouths of foster children?

    The second question is:

    given the cost of living increases over the past several years, is the little over $400 a month per child adequate?

  • SCB (unverified)

    Chip -

    I note you say that the Foster Parents were "out gunned" by other groups contending for a share of the budget. That isn't an accident, that is a result of decades of work, part of which I gladly took part in, to insure that the non-profit organizations that the State contracts with for purchase of care were not starved to death.

    To in any way portray the organizational work done by the residential care non-profits of Oregon as "out gunning" reveals a shallow understanding of the terms that the Oregon Legislature and Governor's Office have laid down on the non-profits and the Foster Parents. For at least 36 years that I have tracked this, the Governor's office through the agencies under his/her command pit the Foster Parents against the likes of Christie Home, Parrot Creek Boys Ranch, Children's Farm Home, etc. Those non-profits can show exactly what a cut in funding will do to services. Back in the late 1970's when inflation was at double digits for an extended period, survival meant convincing the Legislature that more funds were needed - that a "no increase" budget meant a cut to services. During that time period and to the present, these agencies have learned how to lobby, how to convince, and how to present their case in a manner that helps to sustain budgets barely sufficient to get the State's work done.

    They are not the "bad guys".

    What needs to happen is that we step back and deal with the real problems, and not the symptoms.

    In Oregon's Legislative history, there are a series of problems that lead us to today. Starting with the double digit inflation of the late 1970's when "out of home care" for Oregon's children was already under funded, there was:

    The Timber Recession and the resulting 1981 budget when the Governor identified cuts in 5% levels up to 15% for all State agencies, and the Legislature then could pick and choose what to keep and what to cut. Some programs for children were then eliminated, and some cut either 5 or 10%.

    The results of the recession made State funding tight through the mid-1980's sessions, but overall a little ground was made up by the end of the decade.

    In November 1990, Measure 5 passed. This property tax limitation measure put a cap on local government spending, and shipped to the State about half the bill related to school funding (prior to this, school funding was a local paid bill except for some ESD type services, and some Federal paid services). In the next legislative sessions, rather than create a new tax, expand an existing tax, or deal with the revenue reduction in any way; all budget balancing came about with budget cuts. Services for children, foster care or otherwise, suffered with funding that did not keep up with real world expenses.

    Later in the 1990's, Kevin Mannix et al got a measure passed by the people to get tough on crime. This brought about a $billion or so of prison building and expansion that have put another permanent dent in the State's budget. Again, rather than look for revenue to cover this new expense, the Governor and Legislature just cut other budgets back. At the time, the economy of Oregon was in expansion, so the cuts were not as deep as they would otherwise be (e.g. the good economy covered up the poor state of the State.)

    In the mid 1990's another property tax limitation measure was passed, modified by the legislature, and passed again. Measure 50 put a 3% growth limit on local governments and the property tax that goes to the State for schools. Anytime that inflation exceeds 3%, our local and State governments take a permanent funding reduction as compared to real world costs. Again, there was no funding mechanizm put in place to replace the lost revenue. Therefore, over time, the amount of the State general fund that is mandated to go to schools has increased as the amount of revenue from property tax has decreased as a share of the total revenue picture. This means that between the un-funded prison expansion and the property tax limitations, and the school funding mandate - the money left over for all other State expenditures is shrinking.

    And this has played out as the key legislative dynamic since the late 1990's.

    So, it is not a battle between "out gunned" Foster Parents and the non-profit organizations, it is the lack of will by the Governor's office and the legislature to do the work to come up with replacement revenue. Oregon has an unsustainable budget that will just get worse each budget cycle. The mandated expenses for schools and prisons are ultimately so large as to make the non-mandated expenses for children, the elderly, and the rest of State services a moot and historic point. We are on the road to becoming a "Romania" in terms of our social services.

    I am well aware that the legislature has put forth some poorly crafted measures that they did not support at election time to in part solve these problems. What we really need is a complete revenue system overhaul.

    Until we as a State work on the real problem, symptoms such as the Foster Care system will suffer. I expect it to get worse, not better, no matter how organized the Foster Parents get. You can march on Salem all you want with your signs held high demanding more funds for foster care, but Oregon just doesn't have the money.

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