John Nichols knows serving as a volunteer on a foster care citizen review board is a commitment, both in time and energy.
But, Nichols said, being in a position to help foster children from getting lost in the system is a reward that makes the personal investment worthwhile.
“You’re acting on behalf of these kids that are in foster care, and we know that the stats haven’t been great for Oregon foster care kids. We’re really reviewing the cases to see if the agency is following what they need to be following. And the (citizen review board) as a whole, including our local agency, has called attention to certain issues that are coming up that could be affecting the safety of kids.”
Nichols, a field manager for the Oregon Judicial Department, oversees citizen review boards in eight Eastern Oregon counties. He is seeking volunteers to serve on a pair of Umatilla County boards in Hermiston and Pendleton.
“We really want some permanent volunteers. Now, permanent means that they’re willing to keep committing to the program,” Nichols said. “The first year, they’re on a one-year probation period, and then from that point on, they’re reappointed by the court every two years. That gives an out for them if they wanna step away, and it also gives an out to the agency and to us, if we feel like our board member is not doing an adequate job.”
Nichols said every child in the state’s foster care system has their case reviewed every six months by a judge or by the citizen review board to ensure the foster child is receiving adequate care.
“We’re really reviewing the cases to see if the agency is following what they need to be following,” he said. “And the CRB as a whole, including our local agency, has called attention to certain issues that are coming up that could be affecting the safety of kids. We had several cases of kids from Umatilla County who were in some of these out-of-state foster care placements that had safety issues going on there. We made recommendations along those lines.”
The Pendleton board meets on the second Thursday of the month to review the cases of children in foster care primarily in east Umatilla County, while the Hermiston board meets on the fourth Tuesday of the month and handles the cases of children in foster care primarily in west Umatilla County and Morrow County.
To serve on one of the citizen review boards, volunteers must be a resident or employed in either Umatilla County or Morrow County.
Nichols said his Umatilla County boards are made up of between two and seven volunteers.
“I like to have the numbers on the higher side because it allows for a little more freedom if somebody has to be gone or somebody gets sick or something of that issue,” he said.
Members of the CRB are given case files — ranging between 500 to 800 pages per month — between 10 to 14 days in advance of the monthly meeting. They then serve on a board for one day a month and review foster care cases with everyone involved in the case, which could include Oregon Department of Human Services caseworker, tribal representative, parents, attorneys, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), foster parents, and often the children themselves.
“They need to be able to read all that and process that information, and then come to our board days when we meet with all of the parties of the case and ask questions of the parties about how things are going,” Nichols said. “The board (has to look over all the information they received ahead of time, then come to our board day, and then) goes through a series of findings that they’re required to make and ask questions on each of those findings.”
Nichols said an important attribute for a board member is objectivity.
“The board needs to be somewhat judicious. They can’t let their passions or their biases towards the agency run them up,” he said. “They need to be listening to the facts, then making findings based on those facts. In many ways, the citizen review board is a court hearing. The board is really acting as the judge on a case, but we don’t make decisions for the case. We make recommendations back to the court or other parties.”