If Oregon is going to improve the way it cares for children in its foster system, it’s going to take commitment and leadership. That’s why residents of Deschutes County should be proud of the judges and staff of the Deschutes County Circuit Court.
They have made the state’s most vulnerable children a priority, giving them a better chance of a brighter future.
Regular readers of the newspaper can’t help but be disappointed to see the reports of terrible failures of Oregon’s foster care system. Children have been neglected and abused in the very system that is supposed to protect them. The court system isn’t going to fix that by itself. In Deschutes County, though, it is making a difference.
Some of it is simply in how the court has organized. All the judges work together so Judge Bethany Flint can specialize in these cases. She sees every case when a child is suspected of being in danger or where a parent cannot provide care. And lawyers, caseworkers and Court Appointed Special Advocates know that every weekday at 4 p.m. if a decision must be made about a child, Flint is available.
Those changes are also only the beginning. Deschutes County along with Clackamas, Lane and Polk are working together to pilot new ways of handling these types of cases — what are called dependency cases. They are focused on the overall goal of reducing the number of children who remain in foster care for two years or more. In 2018, there were 98 such cases filed in Deschutes County. Through Sept. 30 of this year, there have been 50 cases filed.
The four counties arrived on a strategy to put families into one of three different case hearing schedules based on family characteristics. The concept has been used in the nation’s legal system for other types of cases. The idea is to tailor the legal response to the family’s need. The experience won’t be one size fits all.
For instance in the experiment, cases are ranked. Is there a child in the family who is 3 or younger? Is there a restraining order on a member of the family? Has the family been through the process before? Is either parent under 18? Are there criminal charges? All those and more are used to create a score. When the score is high and the child is not expected to be reunited with a family, there is an expedited process to get resolution so the child can be in a safe, secure and nurturing environment more swiftly. When the score is low and a child is expected to be reunited with family, the process is less expedited. The check ins are more related to ensuring the parent or parents are making the appropriate changes in their life so a child can return home.
Does it work? It’s too early to say. The good news is that the experiment is being closely watched and measured by an independent consultant tracking its performance. There should be an honest critique that does not shy away from declaring it hasn’t worked or that it is too difficult to determine if it has.
Jeff Hall, the trial court administrator for the Deschutes County Circuit Court, believes one thing that may need to be tweaked are the characteristics used to place cases in the various tracks. It’s challenging to get those right, and it’s also not easy to measure some things. Judge Flint told us one distinct change may be a benefit. Interactions with families can be fewer, but they last longer. Parents, lawyers, Court Appointed Special Advocates and caseworkers for the Department of Human Services all get their say in those meetings. If there is an issue where a party needs to speak to her about an urgent issue, that can still happen. Fewer scheduled meetings, though, can mean families and children going through the process may be more a part of the process. They are less stuck in the system, Hall said, — meeting after meeting that can require time off from work and finding child care.
Flint also pointed out that there is likely a need to integrate what she called crossover cases — when a child in a dependency case also commits a crime. It’s important for the judicial system to ensure it is responding appropriately.
The experiment and other changes in the Deschutes court system don’t guarantee better outcomes for vulnerable children. They do help. They do signal commitment and leadership from the county court system to improvement. And that’s just what is needed.