|Receiving Center a haven from abuse; strives to put families back together again
Multnomah Countys Child Receiving Center director gives progress report to Gateway business group
THE MID-COUNTY MEMO
Craig Oppermans visit to the Gateway Area Business Association last month was something like a reunion. As director of community programs for the Christie School, he operates Multnomah Countys Childrens Receiving Center, and the grand opening of the facility at East Burnside Street at 102nd Avenue last year was like a whos who of Gateway leaders and activists.
It was also something of a healing process, for the birth of the facility had been anything but smooth. County officials felt the 3.5-acre property was the best location available for the facility. However, community leaders seeking to revitalize Gateway questioned the use of a potential prime retail or development location for a social service agency. They were even more upset when city and county officials proposed to make up the facilitys budget shortfall with more than $2 million of Gateways tax increment financing. (Opportunity Gateway chair Dick Cooley eventually bargained this down to just under $1 million.)
Opperman says no hard feelings remain. Physically, the design of the facility is value-added in terms of appearance and low impact, he says. Prior to opening in February, he says, he personally went door to door in the surrounding neighborhood, introducing himself to neighbors. I was overwhelmed by the response of the vast majority, he says. There were no complaints, and some offered to do volunteer work for us. I cant say enough about the way theyve welcomed us in.
He added, Its exciting to be in Gateway. Theres all kinds of vibrancy and life.
Progress so far
The center may have had a rougher time internally. The receiving center is the initial central location where Multnomah County children age three to twelve who are removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect are brought until they can be assessed and an appropriate long-term placement can be made. This meant coordinating their activities with a number of different city, county and state agencies. To get everyone on the same page was a challenge, Opperman says.
They also made a change from the original plans. The center was built to house up to 16 children but, Opperman says, We were never funded to provide staffing for more than eight. That has usually been adequate, but not always. There were only five children staying at any one time in April, but up to 15 in May. For times of heavy use, the center has additional staff on call. There doesnt seem to be any predictability as to use, Opperman says. If the heaviest use was constant, wed have to find a way to run a 16 bed facility.
For the center as for all government facilities, funding in these times is an issue. Were constantly looking for any kind of help, but we havent had to cut services, he says. I would never run a program like this with inadequate resources; Id close it first. The economy also affects the center indirectly. Financial problems can make a bad family situation worse. Moreover, as an article in the May Memo pointed out, social services that deal with family issues before they reach the crisis stage have taken a heavy beating in budget considerations.
The bad old days
Before the center existed, as Opperman reminded the GABA board, children removed from their homes, already suffering from horrible abuse, were given a traumatic treatment that was etched into their souls for the rest of their lives. Sometimes they rode around for hours in the back of squad cars with police officers seeking a place to put them. Sometimes theyd spend hours sitting in a social service office listening to case workers seek a place to put them for the night, and sometimes theyd wind up sleeping on the office floor. When a foster home was available (Opperman said that most foster care providers are on the road to sainthood), the children would often arrive late at night when the household was ill equipped to deal with them. On occasion theyd arrive with clothes and bodies infested with lice, making it necessary to wash the whole households clothes, creating shame for the newcomers and resentment among their new room mates.
Even under the best of circumstances, being uprooted and placed in foster care is traumatic, Opperman said. Children often blame themselves for the breakup of their families, and for them foster care is a lose-lose situation. If they bond with their foster family, theyre betraying their own family. If they dont, they assume theyre such a bad child they cant even make it in a professional setting.
Worst of all, perhaps, the scarcity of resources meant that siblings had to be split up. Often, in such situations, a 12 year old was the real parental figure, Opperman said.
A safe place
The center provides a safe, neutral setting where the best long-term placement for children can be determined. Sometimes, when a relative is available, they stay at the center just a few hours. The longest stay is eight days, and the average stay is four. Opperman stressed that every effort is made to reunite the families. Unlike a domestic violence shelter, its location is not secret. If parents are willing to work within the system, we encourage them to visit, Opperman said. We give them every chance possible to get their children back. If a mother has an abusive boyfriend, this can be a wake up call for her.
The coordination of services within the center also has benefits. The children get to tell their story just once instead of over and over again, Opperman said. We give them a little bit of heaven after theyve been through hell.
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