Foster care reform has played an important role in Oregon’s gubernatorial race this year. Both incumbent Gov. Kate Brown (D) and Republican challenger Knute Buehler have pitched ideas about how to address persistent problems in Oregon’s child welfare system, highlighted by a scathing state audit released by Secretary of State Dennis Richardson (R) in January.
That issue took center stage this summer with a controversial television ad campaign critical of Gov. Brown.
In the emotional commercial, foster parents Ben West and Paul Rummell talk about their relationship with their adoptive son, Jayquan, while also calling attention to Oregon’s crisis.
“We saw first-hand how broken the system is,” West says, as he sits with his family on a couch in their living room. According to the ad, the couple fostered 13 children before adopting Jayquan.
The couple go on to blame Gov. Brown for problems with the state’s foster care system.
“Children are suffering under her care,” Rummel says. “Kate Brown, we need to fix this problem.”
At the end of the one-minute commercial, they include a phone number for Brown’s office and urge viewers to tell the governor to “start putting kids first.”
The ad just finished airing in Oregon — federal election laws prohibit “electioneering communications” 60 days before a general election. But the ad has sparked a fiery debate on the role of caregivers in the political process, including criticism from Brown’s supporters, including some in the foster care system. “No one should use foster kids as a means to attack a political opponent,” wrote one foster parent in a letter last month.
The two are not new to politics. The couple were among the plaintiffs in a court case that struck down Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2014. And West made an unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination for a U.S. House seat in 2016. Rummell, his husband, is a Democrat.
Earlier this year, the couple formed a foster families advocacy group, Oregon Foster Families First. In May, it held a rally at the state capitol, calling for more support for foster parents and state investments in programs like mentoring for foster parents.
In a conversation with The Chronicle of Social Change, West talked about why he helped produce the political ad and what the state needs to do to improve its child welfare system.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from the commercial?
Overall, I’ve been stopped on the street. I’ve had people say, “Are you the guy on TV?” I’ve had at work people I don’t know come to me and be like incredibly thankful, incredibly moved by it, realize that it was an authentic depiction of what’s really happening in Oregon. Overall the response has been overwhelmingly positive. You have a few people that would get on the Facebook page, and they kind of troll and say really ugly and off-the-wall things, but overall the response has been shockingly positive.
Some critics seem uncomfortable with the commercial’s attack on Governor Brown, and its inclusion of foster care. What would you say to those folks?
I would say it wasn’t an attack, and we’re not asking you to vote or not vote for Governor Brown. We’re asking you to join us, and pleading with her to take leadership and make it a priority, and that’s the goal. I hope that people open their eyes and actually see the evidence that shows the lack of response and the lack of making it a priority in her leadership.
Definitely, child welfare has a prominent role, or at least some part to play in this governor’s race. How would you like to see discussions play out during this gubernatorial race?
I would like them both to talk about solutions and make specific commitments going into the next session in January. I would like them not to just talk about fixing the problem, but to be specific solutions and make specific something. Our whole goal was to create and to provide awareness, to advocate issues facing foster families and children in their care. By exposing the problems, we hope to make the leaders make necessary changes. That’s really what the ad’s about. It’s literally about reforming foster care.
Why has it been so difficult in Oregon to keep up the number of quality foster homes?
One, because the relationship with the system is so toxic, that’s created between the foster family and DHS [Oregon Department of Human Services]. When you feel isolated, alone, and have a culture of distrust in the system that’s recruited you, candidates are actually hard and difficult to actually get certified. When you have distrust, it’s going to be harder to retain families.
They feel like they’re at risk and they’re being mistreated. Why would they stay in, right? Like, why would they put themselves at risk? I hear these stories over and over and over again. [Being a foster parent] is hard work, and it’s heart wrenching, and when you almost feel like you’re in battle with the agency that’s supposed to be recruiting and supporting you, it’s hard to keep foster parents.
Listen, people, unless you’ve done it, don’t quite get it, right? You have this cohesive functional life, you invite this kid into your home, and then all of a sudden, often chaos breaks loose, and living through that. I don’t think a lot of people understand. I think you can hear about it, but until you’ve lived through it, you’re feeling like you’re alone.
You just feel isolated and I think that that culture makes it hard to retain. You hear about a system right now and their reputation is abuse, neglect, death. I mean I don’t see a lot of people running to be a part of that. So, there has to be a cultural shift, there has to be a reputation shift, and a way to be less antithetical to foster parents that are sacrificing their time, and being heroes to these kids than the current culture that it is now.
I think 80 percent of it is culture. And, some of it is, you spend more money to keep the kid in your home than you’re reimbursed. There’s real issues with childcare needs. One of our childcare proposals is on the website, to help with childcare costs for foster kids. These are real modern issues that we all deal with as families. I just think that you’re worked to death, you’re never recognized, the relationship with the agency you’re working with is toxic.
One thing that you mentioned is something that we talk a lot about here at The Chronicle: What a declining number of foster parents in the system means for youth in care. What has this meant for Oregon, a place where kids have been placed in motels and other less desirable shelter situation?
You’re also forced to make decisions on places that are unsafe. It becomes a safety issue.
You’re just basically coming at that poor child’s human dignity. That’s bad, that’s awful. Plus, you have people who are literally non-licensed home monitors watching someone traumatized and highly reactive children. And, you can have multiple children in the same room who are reactive against each other and aren’t safe to be together. You have unlicensed people monitoring them all night long in a run-down motel. I would never want that for any child. It just blows my mind.
What would you like to see Oregon do to correct this issue? Recently, you’ve mentioned tapping into a foster parent mentorship program. What’s the best way the state can help here?
Yeah, because the state can never be an adequate parent, right? It’s a bureaucracy. It’s not something that’s … designed to be family or a parent. Everyone would agree that being in your own family, having a place to put roots, is much, much more healthy.
The state can only do so much. We want stable family units because it’s great for society. The government has the interest in promoting stable family units. Social science proves that it builds the strongest societies.
So when you’re a foster parent … you feel alone and like you’re not even connected to other foster parents. Communities, organizations helping and partnering with the bureaucracy, as with those wraparound services. Maybe it’s communities of faith, maybe it’s Every Child or Embrace Oregon, or other organizations. Maybe it’s food banks, these different nonprofits, maybe it’s a group of teachers that are willing to be tutoring services.
All of these services that can come in … and help support the system, and come in as a community, I think are super powerful because the state is never going to be able to be the family. Communities and families are families.
I felt so isolated as a foster dad and I had very few relationships with other foster parents. And, those days, where you’re feeling like you’re struggling. It’s a hard day to be a parent in general. You need a sounding board. You need a safe space.
Creating this type of mentorship, where you’re with a family – maybe they’ve been doing it for 10 years and they know exactly what you’re going through. And, if you need to cry on their shoulder you can cry on their shoulder. If you need to just vent and have a coffee and have a friendship with somebody who knows exactly what you’re doing.
That’s the type of small group mentorship community that I think is healthy for the psyche and the long-term longevity of foster parents. That’s kind of what I meant by that, and it’s one of those kind of cool community wraparound services for families.
It needs to be endorsed by the state, but it doesn’t need to be run by the state.