Ben West and Paul Rummell have first hand experience with the child welfare system. They became foster parents about a decade ago, and ended up adopting their son after fostering him, starting when he was about 6 years old. They also have experience with making political changes: They were among the plaintiffs behind the successful challenge to Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage. So, the formation of a foster families advocacy group was, as Ben West describes it, a kind of natural evolution.

“Our hearts are so tied to this issue,” he told OPB.

The group held its first rally on the steps of the state capital on the day of the special session in May, an event West’s husband Paul Rummell wrote about, decrying the lack of participation of state lawmakers.

West told “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller that he and Rummell would like to be foster parents again but don’t see either “honesty or partnership” coming from DHS. He says he’d like to see a mentorship program modeled on ones in other states — among other programs.

“We’d love to see support networks for foster parents and foster families,” he says. “We would love to see a appropriate pay for foster families so it doesn’t cost more to have the child in your home than you actually get from the state.”

West says as a working RN, he likes the idea of wrap around services for the whole family, the way patients see a number of health care providers depending on what they need. The need for foster kids and foster families, he says, is desperate.

“What you invest in is often the return you can expect. And I don’t believe the state properly invests in its foster parents or families.”

Senator Sara Gelser chairs the Senate’s committee on Human Services. She says there’s little disagreement that the state needs to put more money into its child welfare system, but says she believes in Governor Kate Brown’s leadership. Gelser credits Brown with the hiring of about 200 more child welfare staffers in a variety of positions. But she admits it’s not enough.

Gelser says changes at the federal level will have an enormous impact on the way child welfare is done in Oregon. U.S. Senator Ron Wyden originally sponsored the Family First Prevention Act, which passed earlier in the year — coincidentally, shortly after Oregon’s Child Welfare Audit was released.

The legislation is complex, but its main provisions deal with prevention services to keep kids out of foster care, and to get more services to kids wherever they are in the child welfare system. 

“We’re going to be able to use federal money to help and assist families before kids go into care. It will allow us to use monies to support families that may have disabilities and need some extra support to safely care for their kids at home. It is going to require us to use evidence based practices and services to make sure that we are getting the right services to the right families at the right time.”

Gelser says the federal legislation will also require — with very limited exceptions — that kids are put into “family-like” circumstances. In other words, no more group homes. The requirements of the federal law, she says, cannot be overstated.

“These will absolutely transform our system. They will be very difficult. These are big changes.”

Gelser says she’s formed a working group that pulls from all three branches of government and a variety of advocates, to coordinate the rollout. The law goes into effect October of 2019, with federal draft regulations to be released this by this October.

Click Here to Listen.