Board members work for free to help local families

Are the parents of a child placed in Jackson County's foster care system after neighbors' repeatedly found the toddler wandering naked in the streets ready to get their child back? And, if not, are our local state agencies doing everything they can to support and nurture this little girl?

This is a typical scenario under consideration, said members of the local Judicial Department Citizen Review Board.

The board — which is actively seeking new volunteers — is a program within the Oregon Judicial Department. Established in 1985 by the Oregon Legislature, the review boards are the state's response to a 1980 federal mandate that it must oversee the cases of each child placed in the state's foster care system (which includes the Oregon Youth Authority) every six months, said Suzanne Callahan, field manager for the county's citizen review board.

"We're ensuring there is accountability," said Callahan. "We're doing the work of the court, but on a broader level. We're looking at the system as a whole. We're also taking the pressure off the court docket and we're giving citizens an opportunity to have a voice in these really high-needs kids."

Jen Stephenson has served as a board volunteer since June 2006. The board's job is to review "what has happened in that child's world in the past six months," Stephenson said.

The board members want to know if each child is progressing, regressing or stagnant, she said.

"The thing I like about is that we're making sure the children are properly cared for," said Stephenson. "And also that we're making sure the government agencies are making decisions that are best for the children. And not what's best for anybody but the children."

Drugs, domestic violence and sexual abuse are epidemic in the valley. And adult choices can take a heavy toll on young lives. Children are born with physical challenges, diminished mental capacity and/or serious emotional issues, said Stephenson.

"We're helping to protect those children from anything worse in life," she said. "And also that all needs are met so that child can grow to 100 percent of their capacity."

But some parents do turn their lives around. And the goal is to have the children return to their parents — or be placed in permanent adoption or guardianship, she added.

"You would hope a parent would do what they're asked to do. Some people just lose their way for a short while," said Stephenson.

Another area of board oversight is for children who have committed crimes, and are in the custody of the Oregon Youth Authority, said Callahan.

The boards operate as a judicial body, reviewing the cases of children and youth in substitute care — including foster homes, group homes and residential treatment centers, said Callahan. Functioning independently from the various state agencies it monitors, the citizen review board presents its findings to a judge, she said.

"Then the judge signs off and the report goes into the juvenile's file," said Callahan.

There are five boards in Jackson County and two in Josephine County. The seven boards review about 700 cases per year, about 60 cases per month, Callahan said.

Volunteers serve one full weekday per month. People from diverse backgrounds with an interest in child welfare and youth accountability are encouraged to apply. Some financial assistance may be available to low-income volunteers, said Callahan.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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