An intended consequence: Enterprising Oregon community builds hope for children, families

Nestled against a busy commercial stretch of Interstate 5 in the Pacific Northwest, the Oregon capital of Salem is a good place to do business.

But the easy-in, easy-out convenience that benefits commerce once ushered in the wrong kind of trade – illegal drugs. In a city known for the wheeling and dealing of government, the peddling and manufacturing of methamphetamine had taken over certain neighborhoods.

Neighbors in some parts of the city felt like prisoners in their own homes. Mothers shuddered at the thought of pushing strollers down the sidewalk. Sketchy vehicles pulled up to decrepit houses and drove away just as fast. One neighbor watched in horror as a stranger left a baby on the porch of a notorious meth house before entering, presumably to make a deal, get high or both. That same neighbor also once saw the occupants of that house answer the door with guns.

Enough was enough. The community mobilized.

Neighbors, business leaders and faith leaders partnered with police, prosecutors, the court system and elected officials to mount an aggressive community-wide effort to shut down the meth trade. The “No Meth – Not in MY Neighborhood” campaign was a huge success – but an unintended consequence resulted from the wave of prosecutions. As Salem’s meth houses were shuttered and parents who were dealers and users were taken into custody, the number of children placed into foster care in Marion County went up a dramatic 50 percent, from about 800 to 1,200 children.

Residents could have left it to government – specifically, the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) – to deal with that influx of children in foster care. The department, after all, is charged with overseeing child welfare. But instead, the community put the responsibility for the welfare of its children squarely upon itself, working in full partnership with DHS.

On the heels of the community effort to beat back the scourge of meth, Salem mobilized yet again – this time to recruit foster families for the hundreds of displaced children who had been unable to stay safely with their parents and families.

Successful in that recruitment effort, the community could have congratulated itself and stopped there. Instead, it expanded its vision as it extended its hand. Salem came to understand that in order to address the long-term safety and success of vulnerable children, it couldn’t simply focus on foster care.

It had to foster hope.

In an inspiring example of an entire community coming together to improve the lives of its children, Salem has committed to a multi-faceted partnership that strengthens families and makes neighborhoods supportive places for those families. In doing so, Salem is embracing values that lead to a reduction in child abuse and neglect, which in turn safely reduces the need for foster care.

Salem has built a community of hope.

For several years, Casey Family Programs has supported innovative programs in Marion County – and all across the state of Oregon – that recognize the important role that engaged communities play in building strong families and keeping children safe.

One way for a community of hope to get built is for child welfare systems to encourage relationships with local partners – and then nurture those partnerships with mutual respect and abiding trust.

“You have to put your ego aside and let everyone play in the sandbox,” said Rene DuBoise, DHS district manager over Marion County. “By working with community partners, we are reinforcing the idea that these kids are not DHS kids, they are the community’s kids.”

Are you on board?

The community puts the responsibility of the welfare of its children squarely upon itself.

Hope emerges when community partners come together under a shared vision to improve the lives of vulnerable children and families. Those partners can have diverse backgrounds, hailing from different systems of government (child welfare, law-enforcement, juvenile justice, family courts, education, health care) and various sectors of the community (business, faith, philanthropy, nonprofit, political).

Hope flourishes where leaders within those areas emerge.

Dick Withnell, 70, is a visible leader in Salem’s community of hope. A slight-of-build but larger-than-life local figure, Withnell has run a Dodge dealership in town for decades. After seeing the economic impacts of Salem’s meth epidemic, Withnell helped drive the initial “No Meth” campaign.

But it wasn’t until he read a story in the local newspaper that he understood the unintended consequences of that effort. The story examined the plight of DHS, which was bringing children from meth houses into protective custody in the middle of the night with no place to put them. Innocent babies had nowhere to go.

Withnell organized a meeting with other Salem business leaders, passed around a hat and helped raise more than $200,000 to open a receiving home where children could be placed hours after being removed. He also stood before faith leaders inside the Salem Conference Center and urged them to help DHS address a debilitating shortage of foster families. Using the hard-sell approach of a car dealer, he made the faith leaders sign pledge cards that had three options to check: Yes, Yes and Yes.

“I want to know today if you are on board. I want to know today if you see the need,” he said to the faith leaders, his voice cracking. “And if you don’t, God help us.”

In the upstairs office of his car lot, Withnell explained how a politically conservative businessman having virtually no previous familiarity with the nuances of the child welfare system has become such a vocal partner in Salem’s community of hope. Business leaders need to lead in child advocacy as much as those in the human services field, he said.

“You can be a bleeding-heart, warm-fuzzy goody-good-shoe who works on foster care issues, and that’s great,” Withnell said. “But you also need a hard-core, no-nonsense business guy who understands the ROI (return on investment) of getting involved. When children do not have the same opportunities that the rest of us have, that’s not right – that’s not American.”

Like a true businessman, Withnell illustrates his thoughts through a flow chart he draws on an easel in his office. Memorabilia displayed inside his office reflect many of the opportunities he has had – from his company’s sponsorship of NASCAR to his face on a Wheaties box to the framed photo on the wall given to him personally by former Chrysler executive Lee Iacocca.

“I used to be a hard-core, throw-‘em-in-jail kind of guy,” Withnell said. “Now I think we underestimate what a human being can do when taught how to become a good parent. A lot of people get excited about ‘extreme makeovers’ of houses. To me, nothing is better than the ‘extreme makeover’ of a life.”

A welcoming door

A hard-working single mom raising seven kids ranging in age from 2 to 15, Raquel Chavarria could use a little help.

That help arrived through the Fostering Hope Initiative, which has brought together more than 30 community partners to improve the lives of children and families in two high-poverty Salem neighborhoods. With Catholic Community Services as the anchor, the collaborative includes nonprofits, churches, DHS, the Marion County Children and Families Department, the Marion County Health Department, two area elementary schools and several other partners. The initiative gives parents like Chavarria a welcoming door to services and hope for their children.

Chavarria’s introduction to the Fostering Hope Initiative began with an invitation from her sister to attend a community dinner at her church. The weekly dinners, which feed about 200 people, are organized through the Fostering Hope Initiative and Christian Center of Salem as a way to bring families together to build relationships and support for one another.

Children need mentors, advocates, role models and neighbors looking out for them

Sitting at one of the round tables with other moms, Chavarria learned about a free 13-week class for parents with young children offered through a Fostering Hope Initiative partner. The last time she had taken a parenting skills class was in high school, as a teenage mom with one child. “I figured it couldn’t hurt to go through one again,” she said.

She also signed up for a “home visiting” program. Nancy Contreras, a Fostering Hope Initiative home visitor with Catholic Community Services, visits Chavarria and her children once a week, often carrying donated diapers for 2-year-old Omarion, plus books and other necessities for the family. Contreras also provides information on early childhood development so Chavarria can track milestones for Omarion. The visits not only help the children, but also help Chavarria. “I’m noticing a change in the way we do things here at home as a family,” Chavarria said. “I’m certainly not being as negative or as hard on myself as I was before. I felt I was alone with no one to help. I felt it was my fault that my kids are in this situation. Right now, someone is helping us and you never know, maybe one day we’ll be in a position to help someone else.”

Actually, she already has. Chavarria, who lives in an apartment complex for low-income families, told Contreras about a neighbor, a new single mom who also could benefit from Fostering Hope Initiative services. Contreras approached the neighbor, but the mother wouldn’t answer her door.

So in this case, the messenger of hope needed to be Chavarria, whose own life had been lifted by a community of caring individuals. When Chavarria joined Contreras for a second attempt on the porch, the neighbor opened the door to let them in.

And hope walked right on through.

Little house, big heart

The little house called “La Casita” is owned by the adjacent Holy Cross Lutheran Church but is operated by the community. It opened a year ago as a resource center to families within one of the Fostering Hope Initiative’s target neighborhoods.

Holy Cross, located in a neighborhood with many young Latino families, is a mostly white and mostly gray-haired congregation. The church once ran a daycare center in the little house. “We had an empty house that we wanted to do something with to impact the youth in the community,” said Loran Sell, a church elder and retired schoolteacher.

Sell already was involved in the Fostering Hope Initiative as a tutor and mentor at the local elementary school, so he approached Carrie Maheu, who works for the Salem Leadership Foundation, a faith-based community nonprofit and a Fostering Hope Initiative partner. Maheu serves as a liaison between the neighborhood and area churches.

“I explore opportunities,” she said. “I explore the heartbeat of a church and the needs of the neighborhood, and we go on that journey together.”

Families and communities, not systems, are best equipped to raise children.

That journey led to a handshake between Holy Cross and the Fostering Hope Initiative to operate La Casita. “We have a written agreement, but I can’t say it’s binding,” Sell said. “It’s just kind of a leap of faith, I guess. I presented the idea to our church council, and they trusted Carrie and me enough to make it happen.”

La Casita has embraced an issue residents identified as a top need: early literacy services. “When we headed down the road of early literacy, man, I’ll tell you, we got a response from the community to help,” Maheu said.

One of La Casita’s rooms has been turned into a lending library for pre-schoolers. Residents donated about 1,750 books. The Union Gospel Mission donated shelves. A local church donated small tables and chairs from its former pre-school. Retired librarians categorized, labeled and organized the books.

Building hope requires the commitment of all in a community.

Neighbors helping neighbors

While the impetus behind Salem’s community of hope was an emergent meth epidemic, any set of circumstances can inspire one.

“In Marion County, we had a community that mobilized from the private sector forward in response to a crisis,” said Lois Day, director of the DHS child welfare program. “In the process, the community learned a lot about meth and police intervention, but also about family stress factors. Once the community got to know these families and these kids, it couldn’t let go. And that’s what happens. Once we all become aware of the needs of our children and families, we can’t close our eyes to them. It’s part of the human condition that we care about people.”

Marion County District Attorney Walt Beglau recalled that back in the day when law-enforcement was shutting down meth houses, investigators would enter the homes and literally step over the children to arrest the adult occupants, failing to see beyond the criminal case that lay before them. Today, the law-enforcement approach is more holistic. All in the community have come to recognize the important role they play in helping heal suffering families. Instead of being stepped over, children are scooped up in an embrace.

“As district attorney, I can file charges until the cows come home, but it won’t do any good until we have neighbors walking alongside neighbors,” Beglau said. “There truly has been a change in our mindset – and I’d never go back.”

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