Foster care: New program aims to keep kids out of system

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EUGENE, Ore. - Emilio, Ben and Emily now have what they've always wanted: a loving, stable, permanent home with the Jessops.

Emilio was in foster care for 5 years before being adopted.

"It's really great just to have a family that's going to care for me," he said.

That's something 8,000 kids in Oregon - more than 1,000 of them in Lane County - are still searching for.

There is good news: The state's Department of Human Services said the number of children entering foster care declined almost 6 percent from 2011 to 2012.

John Radich, the district manager for Lane County, said that's a trend he'd like to see continue.

"I think based on where we are as a county with the recession, number of jobs lost, the stress that puts on individuals, the housing crisis for low income families, it's a good trend," he said.

But Radich said Oregon still has one of the highest foster care entry rates in the country.

And kids in Lane County enter the system at a higher rate than similar-sized counties in the state.

"I am not happy with Oregon," said Christy Obie-Barrett with A Family For Every Child. "I think that Oregon could do a lot more to get their kids into permanent homes and committed homes."

Obie-Barrett helps find "forever families" for foster kids.

"I don't think that anything really progressive has changed in the way that Lane County or that Oregon is doing things," she said. "So to measure this number as far as leaving care, they're going to have to do something really progressive."

Radich agrees that Oregon needs to do better.

But people in the field agree that there's something even better than getting kids out of the foster care system: Not having them enter the system in the first place.

Starting this month, Lane County is 1 of 3 counties in Oregon trying something new.

It's called differential response.

The goal: To help struggling families keep their kids.

"I think that's the ideal," said Lisa Plumb, who has adopted 3 foster children. "I mean I really think that's the ideal is for kids to stay in their birth families if it's safe and yeah if they can be raised in a safe environment. We believe in that for sure."

When child welfare staff receive a complaint, they can choose 1 of 2 paths that family will take.

If the child is in danger of abuse or neglect, they will take the traditional track and investigate.

If not, they will asses what services that family needs.

Caseworkers will not have to file a formal complaint or enter the alleged perpetrator's name into a registry.

"Some are just down on their luck and are going through tough times," Radich said, "and with a little bit of help and support they can turn things around."

DHS has additional funding to help thes families with things like housing, legal issues, finances, parenting and mental health problems.

DHS expects half of the families the agency comes in contact with will be able to take advantage of differential response.

It's help Emilio, Ben and Emily's birth parents might have benefitted from.

"It was a bit of a rough life," said Jack Jessop, their adoptive father. "Their parents tried very hard to raise them, and unfortunately they were not able to."

All three kids agree they feel much safer with their new forever family.

"They're still trying to figure out what a mom and dad is supposed to be," Jessop said, "and at the same time that's what we're doing as well."

"It's different, because I don't have to be the parent of Ben and Emily," Emilio said. "I can just finally be a kid."