Foster youth are aging out of the child welfare system and into systems of poverty and incarceration at significantly higher rates than the average population.
As of January 2022, 5,393 children were in foster care in Oregon. Lane County currently has the highest number of youth entering the system with over 1,100 children having spent at least one night in foster care last year.
Treatment Foster Care Oregon (TFCO) is improving chances for children considered “at-risk” of criminal activity and incarceration. More than 30 years of peer-reviewed research, beginning with the Oregon Social Learning Center, show TFCO’s specialized care decreases delinquent behavior in foster youth.
Despite this program having been researched and developed in Oregon in 1983 by the OSLC, it operates only in Lane and Douglas counties, leaving out a substantial population of youth in southern Oregon, and areas in metro Oregon like Portland.
“If we continue to think in terms of how it can be done cheaper and easier, then we will keep trying things that don’t work. What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different result,” says John Aarons, head of TFCO and president of TFC Consultants.
According to Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, of the 20,000 youth in the U.S. who leave the system each year, one in four were homeless within the first three years and one in five had been incarcerated.
Foster youth are often referred to as “wards of the state” because they are under legal protection of the government. When the Oregon Department of Human Services seizes youth from their homes, they have an obligation to provide effective, rehabilitative care. Failing to improve upon the outcomes of children who enter care reinforces the same cycle of neglect and criminality the state is trying to prevent by taking custody of them in the first place.
But a historical lack of funding to child welfare services has prevented programs like TFCO from being able to expand in Oregon despite their effectiveness, failing to address the eventual financial impact youth have on the community once they become incarcerated or homeless.
Who Does This Help?
TFCO works with youth who aren’t successful in traditional foster care settings. Children entering the program have an alarming number of problems: 72 percent had at least one felony, 47 percent had clinical level depression, 57 percent report attempted suicide, 26 percent had been pregnant, and 36 percent used drugs weekly.
“The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior,” Aarons says. “These are folks who oftentimes have never had allies or support systems and the adults around them have failed. So, what we try to do is duplicate a family situation that does two things; addresses the trauma that’s gone on and fills the child’s and family’s cup.”
TFCO spends anywhere from six months to a year stabilizing youth’s behavior through an individually curated treatment model so they can transition into more permanent care, ideally with family members. This makes it easier on both the child and the family when transitioning into a permanent setting because families are often not equipped to handle the trauma and corresponding behavior that youth exhibit, explains Ana Day, executive director of Oregon Community Programs, a private nonprofit providing treatment and prevention services to youth and families.
“It’s the hardest job you’ll ever deal with and it’s the most rewarding job you’ll ever do,” says Mary Laws, former TFCO foster parent. “But I believe that we do make a difference, not only in their life but also in their kids’ lives. Kids that have been through this program say they’re using the skills that they learned in our home, 10 years ago, in their own families.”
How Is This Done?
Oregon requires foster parents to undergo 30 hours of training. But TFCO requires that its foster parents receive an additional 14 hours of training into its “positive parenting model” aimed at accentuating the youth’s strengths.
“What we want to do is create a non-harsh, supportive, consistent, predictable foster home. And for the foster parents, we want to take as much of the surprise out of it as possible. The kids’ experience up to that point have been very difficult and their behavior can also be difficult, foster parents have to be ready for that,” Day says.
In-home, this is a stable daily schedule that sets clear expectations for things like chores and school. Before the youth is placed in care, an individualized treatment plan is created and evolves with any changing needs or behavioral patterns. An assigned individual therapist helps identify the needs and strengths of each youth.
According to Jordan Callahan, Treatment Foster Care Consultants office coordinator, “Coming from quite a dysfunctional family, you wake up every day and things aren’t going to be consistent. You don’t know what to expect from your parents, or what kind of support you’ll get that day, and I think this program gives kids a chance to wake up every day and know what to expect.”
Depending on the age of the child, foster parents reward the child through sticker charts or points systems, where good behavior is rewarded with privileges like an allowance. Many youth who enter the program have experienced harsh and abusive discipline, or even a total lack of it. So, consequences are predictable, and boundaries are clearly communicated.
Laws says, “We just try to be positive with the kids because they have so many strengths they just don’t know about yet.”
One key element of this model is the support provided to TFCO foster parents. Each home has a team leader who’s available to provide support, whether that be scheduling therapy appointments or facilitating a youth’s favorite activity. In addition to these support services, TFCO parents are offered a foster parent support group that gives parents the chance to connect and learn from one another.
TFCO parents use a daily child behavioral checklist to detect any behavioral and emotional problems. They then communicate with team leaders about it on their parent data report. This assures that problem behaviors are not allowed to become worse over time and are effectively addressed, Aarons says.
The program also has skills coaches who work with youth to build on individual strengths and identify a direction for the future. Laws explains that this allows the interests of the youth to be nurtured while motivating action towards careers or hobbies.
How Has It Helped?
This program uses a straightforward, positive approach to parenting that may seem normal to those outside the system but mean everything to foster youth.
Randomized trials of TFCO suggest that not only were youth less likely to misbehave and face incarceration, but rates of depression and quality of life also improved. Youth involved with TFCO spent fewer days incarcerated, the severity of criminal offenses decreased, and the overall arrest rate for boys dropped by 50 percent.
Girls were less likely to experience unintended pregnancies, and long-term results showed decreased involvement in the foster system as parents.
Overall, youth ran away less often, attended school and completed work more consistently, and experienced decreased rates of depression and suicide.
Compared to traditional housing and treatment options, TFCO is making a significant impact in the lives of children. Studies suggest that not only do youth lead lives that are safer, but their quality of life improves as they experience what is often their first stable and attentive family environment.
“Whenever they come back to me, they always talk about how we would sit down and have dinner every night. And even though I did so much else, most of them said that was the thing they really remember,” Laws says. “It was a time for us to just talk and be a family. It just seemed to be very, very important to them.”
TFCO is a promising intervention for foster youth but the program has struggled to expand, despite areas like Multnomah County having the highest rates of reported child abuse.
One of the biggest barriers for TFCO is the complexity of its funding. The process for receiving TFCO treatment is like a medical prescription; treatment plans are created and covered as a mental health cost, but its services also count as room and board and must be covered by additional streams of funding.
Another issue with funding is how administrators at nonprofits fund placements. Many choose less expensive general care instead of expanding programs like TFCO that pay off in the long term. It ends up becoming a revolving door where funding is sent to less effective programs instead of centralizing treatment and funding.
“When everybody says to me it’s really expensive, I say it depends on how you think about expensive. Because if you get treatment right the first time it’s a bargain” Aarons says. “If kids go on and have productive lives, it’s a deal. If kids go on and don’t have child welfare involvement of their own, or corrections involvement, it’s the absolute best deal in town.” ν
This story was developed as part of the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University Of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Cregon’s most perplexing issues. to learn more visit CatalystJournalism.uoregon.edu or follow the project on Twitter @uo_catalyst.