Q&A with Oregon's child welfare director, Marilyn Jones

Oregon's child welfare director, Marilyn Jones, talks about the challenges and promising new developments happening in Oregon's Foster Care system.

KATU News sat down for an in-depth interview on May 24 with Oregon's new child welfare director, Marilyn Jones. Jones, an 11-time foster parent who eventually adopted two of the children in her care, was hired for the position in September 2017.

How do you think DHS and Child Welfare is specifically doing as an organization?

I think, overall, we have a lot of work to do. And we are making changes, we’re moving, we’re moving forward to support our staff, to support our foster parents, and to create a culture of service.

If you could change something right now about child welfare in Oregon, what would it be?

It would be our caseworkers being able to have a workload that they could do in a 40-hour work week ... maybe even a 50-hour work week, where they could really sit down and have discussions with families and make sure that our kids are safe. Being able to sit down with foster parents -- have that time to really do social work -- that’s why they came to this work. That’s what I would do.

How’s the hiring going of the 200 new positions approved in February by Governor Brown?

We gave out 102 positions this week. We gave out 25 about three weeks ago. Then we will be able to give out more positions in September, and then in January again.

Is 200 going to be enough to lower the caseload? How much more manageable will things be?

They're (our caseworkers) still at 1 in 24 or higher in their caseloads. They should be about one in 11.

Because with a lower caseload, they can spend more time with actual casework?

Right. So one of the things that we’ve done is hire case aids. We’ve had the privilege of having the support of the governor and the Legislature. They allowed us to create this position, and this position goes in and they actually do all the administrative work for our caseworkers, which then allows them to do more of the social work.

What’s that administrative work entail?

Actually, the dictation, being able to put them into the OR-Kids (Oregon's version of the federal Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System), being able to fill out the forms they need if the child needs to be placed in a residential placement, helping with setting up visitations, putting car seats in cars.

If it's a community-wide issue, what can the community do to support the Child Welfare Office’s mission?

The community can come along and walk beside us. We’re only as strong as our community is. And we need people to walk along beside us and help with these children. These are community children, they need our support. We need to make sure that we have the right foster homes for our kids, so that we have good placements. We need to make sure that we have respite providers for our foster parents. We need lots of different things that people could help us with.

How many foster kids in Oregon?

There are 8,000 foster kids in the state of Oregon.

How much is mental health an issue for these children?

We have a lot of the opioid crisis, mental health, behavioral health, it’s almost a combination of all those things when families live in poverty, when families have addictions, the kids are the ones that we have to take care of.

Oregon’s monthly stipend is among the lowest of any state in the country. Would it be beneficial to increase that stipend?

I think that’s always the benefit, but as you know, I was a foster parent, I was an adoptive parent. It’s not about the money, it’s about the time for the caseworker to come and sit with me, and make sure I have the services that I need for these kids, being able to take the time to make sure these kids get what they need, these children, and being able to walk beside me. Because sometimes it’s really hard, and sometimes you just need an extra set of hands or a bigger heart to help you get through it.

You mentioned "respite care" earlier. What does respite care entail?

Well, we have respite providers that yes, they could, they could spend a couple hours with the kid, we have respite grandparents that can come into our office when we have to place a child, and we’re looking for a placement, we have volunteers that come in and spend time with the kids so they’re not alone. And they can kind of calm down and go through boxes and look for things that they might need to go to their placement.

There are lots of different things, you don’t have to just be a foster parent. You can be a volunteer, you can drive, you can adopt a foster family.

You started as a respite care provider?

When I retired the first time, I went to a small community and needed to invest in the community. And I found a need. We had foster parents that were really tired. And I had a couple of teenage kids, and a husband, and we decided to start providing respite care, as a family, for these families, so they could have a night out for themselves. We would play with the kids and entertain the kids.

What do the kids need most? And what do you think they think about DHS?

The children need us to understand, and to ask them, “What’s happened to you?” and to be able to walk beside them and get them the services they need, instead of, “What’s wrong with you?” They need us to be able to walk next to their parents and help their parents heal, so that they can see the healing of their parents, and break that cycle. Whenever possible, children should be able to stay home with their families, with comprehensive services wrapped around them.

Being a foster parent sounds like a completely all-in undertaking.

It’s probably one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done in my life, and probably one of the most rewarding. We had 11 kids in our care, nine of them got to go home. And it was our job as adults to help them transition back to their home, and show those kids that their parents love them, and we love them, and all we wanted was the very best for them.

One of my children, they asked if I could just keep him for three days, and I had him for 11 months. So you never know how long they’re going to stay with you. It really is up to the parent and how does the parent heal and can we get the right services for them so they can?

What’s your opinion of non-governmental foster care support organizations like Every Child Oregon? Do you welcome their involvement?

We are excited for Ben Sand and his community to walk beside us, and we are fully ready to be partners with them, to be able to support our foster families in the best possible way, to get our communities involved and to start that community movement, so that we can take care of our kids in a way that’s holistic and with fidelity and be able to offer all of those services. Imagine what all of us could do!

Going forward, you believe more community involvement and support is very important to your mission of doing what's best for the children in Oregon's foster system?

Absolutely. And not only for our workers. It’s easy to judge. It’s easy to judge parents. It’s easy to judge the work that we do. And I challenge people to come up and walk beside us and not to judge but to listen and to learn and to see how they can make a difference in the life of a caseworker, in the life of a child and the life of a family.

And if these 200 new hires has a positive impact, do you see more funding coming? More hires?

We have to earn the trust, and we need to get those positions out there, and have them working and showing that they’re making a difference. We need to be accountable for everything that we do as an organization. And I think that that’s one of the fun things that I bring to this business. Not only was I a foster parent and an adoptive parent, I worked in the private sector for many years. And so being able to look at who needs to be accountable -- I need to be accountable. And (Director of the Department of Human Services) Fariborz Pakseresht needs to be accountable. And I think with the businesses walking beside us, with Every Child walking beside us, with Embrace Oregon walking beside us, we will be a force to be reckoned with.

Being so new to this position, the news of Governor Brown approving that expanded funding and the new hires must have been good news.

That was exceptional! It was one of the best nights on the job, because we didn’t really expect it. But we had to ask, because our staff really needs our support, and they need to see that we’re stepping up and we’re asking for what we need. This is kind of a stop-gap measure until we figure out what we truly need. And then we’ll be able to go back and say, “Look what we’ve done, look how we’ve made it better,” and here’s the new support that we may need.

How rewarding is it to see the foster progression go, from kids being in the worst place to seeing the light ahead of them?

I think that any time that you can make a difference in a child’s life, if you can touch anybody’s life in a positive way within a week or a year, it’s phenomenal. But I think when you see these kids come in and they feel afraid, and they feel like they’re not worth being taken care of, and you can love them and take care of them and help them see their parents in a very positive light, and walk through that journey with them and their parents, it is a phenomenal feeling. It is incredible.

Sounds like more people should take a chance and have that feeling.

I think more people should try respite care, because you start with volunteering. I volunteered for the Department of Human Services, I started doing respite care, we then became foster parents, then we became adoptive parents. It was a journey, it was not one that I’d planned, but it was a journey and it was a journey that was phenomenal. And it helps me look at things a little differently as we move forward and as we start to support our foster parents in our communities.

Did you adopt one of the kids you care for?

Two of them.

Your career found you?

I’ve had a fabulous career in the private sector. I’ve gotten to do all sorts of things in my life, but this was not something that I chose. It was something that chose me. And I absolutely love Child Welfare. You have to have a heart for it. You have to be able to hear the hard stuff, and know that you can make a difference.

And in this position, do you feel like you’re making a difference already?

You know, I’d like to say yes. I think we’ve made a difference. We’re starting to do a culture shift. We’ve spoken to more than 2,500 people, I’ve been in 21 counties, and I listen to the staff. With service leadership, you have to work from the bottom up. They know what they need, then we need to take the barriers away so that they can get to the work.

Do people want to be caseworkers? People see they can make a difference?

It’s been a very difficult time the last two years for our caseworkers. Yet today I went and I spoke to 200 caseworkers and I asked them, “How many of you have been here over ten years?” It was amazing the number of hands that raised. These are not people who do it for the money. They don’t do it because it feels good to come to work. They do it because they care. They care about the kids. And they want to be here. But they want to do it well. They don’t want their families to lose out because they’re taking care of other families. They want to be home with their families as well in the evening. With our high caseloads, they’re working a lot of times seven days a week. They’re working 12-hour shifts. And we want to get them back to a normal shift. And yes, they’ll want to be there. And they’ll want to make that difference.

It seems like it would be easy for things to fall through the cracks when caseworkers are stretched that thin.

Well, we were also granted 50 positions for trainers, consultants and educators out in the field. We call them the MAPS (Mentoring, Assisting, and Promoting Success). We got these 50 positions, which are dynamite for our supervisors. It allows them more time to do one-on-ones with our caseworkers. It allows them to have somebody to go out to court with our workers and support them, or to go out on cases. They’ve been incredible. And these are all workers who promoted up in just the last few months. So that’s pretty neat.

It's almost like respite care for your caseworkers.

Yes, and we need more of that.

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