- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Oregonians who want to aid foster children but can’t commit as full-time caretakers are getting a message while the state grapples with a deficit of foster parents: You don’t have to become a full-time parent to help.

Every Child is an initiative born of Portland-based Embrace Oregon to show people small steps they can take to help foster children. It’s expanding into Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties, and hoping to operate with local organizers all over the state by 2021.

The Embrace Oregon model is supposed to complement existing care for the approximately 8,000 foster children in Oregon, distributing responsibility for the children throughout communities by giving people easier ways to pitch in.

Embrace Oregon allows people who have gone through a background check to hang out with new foster children while case workers find them a place to live. People can also make welcome boxes for the children filled with items such as journals, night lights and crayons.

Every Child is meant to take cues from the Embrace Oregon model while addressing the needs of individual counties. It is one in a list of recruitment and retention efforts pursued by the state Department of Human Services, the agency in charge of child welfare services. Others are a 24-hour hotline and a “night out” program for foster parents.

The effort comes as the pool of eligible foster parents able to take on children in Oregon has dwindled in recent years. In 2015 there were 3,847 certified foster parents in the state, according to a DHS spokeswoman, down from 4,673 in 2010. The number has fallen consistently year-over-year since then.

Embrace Oregon, a Portland Leadership Foundation endeavor that started in the City of Roses, is drawing more interest to potentially chip away at the shortage.

“In Portland, we’ve hit hyper-drive with the most important statistic that we measure,” Portland Leadership Foundation Chief Executive Ben Sand said. He said the model brought 469 families asking about becoming foster families in 2016 there.

“Since we started building this new public-private model of mobilizing Oregonians to come alongside the heroic men and women at DHS, its changed my life forever,” Sand said. “I’ve become a foster parent to a two-and-a-half-year-old brave and bold and brash boy.”

The executive isn’t alone. The effort has drawn Krystal Foote, 32, and her husband to welcome two young brothers as foster children in the Portland area.

Foote learned about volunteering as an “office mom” to children coming into the system as a way to help without becoming a parent. Embrace Oregon office parents visit with children while officials find them a home, instead of making them sit in a cubicle.

“It really is a minimal sacrifice,” Foote said.

Foote, who works from home, never thought she would become a foster parent, though. That changed as she learned about problems facing foster children, particularly a shortage of homes. She and her husband, Ryan, made the move to become foster parents.

She thinks Embrace Oregon has done a good job of taking a large issue and breaking it down into different levels of responsibility. She wishes more people would step up and help.

“Many hands make light work,” she said.

Despite success north of Salem, the timeline for an Embrace Oregon-style group to start working in the Mid-Willamette Valley remains unclear.

“We’re not taking our offices and our staff from Portland and stamping them into other counties, but looking for local leaders to lead the effort,” Embrace Oregon Director Brooke Gray said. “As we jump into new counties, we anticipate (an) up to two-year on-ramp to have a local organization that is up and running.”

That hasn’t stopped some from taking the leap and crafting their own welcome boxes for the Marion County Child Welfare office. On a recent morning, dozens of the boxes lined a wall there, one of which was filled with playing cards, a small toy airplane and other goodies marked for a young boy.

“The welcome boxes are great… for kids to have something to take with them to foster care,” said Dawn Hunter, a program manager in the Marion County office.

The state has welcomed the help, with DHS Child Welfare Director Lena Alhusseini praising the public-private effort.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child, and this is the village,” she said.

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