DHS Christmas party gives torn-apart families joy and glimpses of hope

See how the East Multnomah County office of this oft-criticized state agency has put together an event – sponsored by donors – which provided recovering parents the chance to reunite with their kids …

At the DHS Christmas Party, Joel successfully fishes for a teddy bear, with the help of his dad Joey Sue and DHS worker Sarah Lee.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Beneath the fairy-tale image of a toys-and-tinsel Christmas depicted in the advertisements, there lies a dark and often-confusing world in which live kids who’ve been taken into protective custody.

“There has to be severe risk involved, for children to be taken into protective custody,” says Mary Boehme, DHS Child welfare Case Worker at the East Multnomah County Branch Office which serves outer East Portland and Rockwood. “It happens, if there is a genuine concern about the child’s safety.”

Many methamphetamine addicts are also parents, law enforcement officials remind us. “But there are many different drug addictions which cause parents to neglect their children and not give them the care they need. Domestic violence and mental health issues are also things that hinder a family from staying together,” explains Boehme.

The parent or parents are given up to a year, Boehme tells us, in which to remedy their situation and get their lives in order.

“Often times, these parents are thankful for the DHS process that helps them turn their lives around. This process includes parenting classes, drug and alcohol treatment, counseling, and maintaining a stable residence and job so the can support their child. If one or both of the parents have been involved in the criminal justice system, they also need to abide by the conditions of their release,” adds Boehme.

Elf Kathie Nicholas and Santa Claus encourage Anthony Dominquez to share his Christmas wishes with them.

Party brings delight, and anticipation
On December 18, both kids and adults streamed into an office building with no sign, set back in a large strip mall on SE 122nd Avenue – there to attend a Christmas Party put on by DHS case workers.

The children, if they have not in the care of a family member, have been staying with a foster care family. The adults invited to the party are parents who have dedicated themselves to changing their lives and getting their families back together.

“For parents who are working through the DHS process,” Boehme says, “it gives them a glimpse of ‘what could be’ when they complete their program and are reunited with their children. If they are engaged in the process, they welcome the opportunity to have some kind of engagement with their child.”

And, by the looks on their faces, the kids love the event from the moment they enter.

Meeting and counseling rooms offer host of crafts and games in which all the kids are winners. And, in a special room, the youngsters get to have a one-on-one meeting with jolly Santa Claus himself.

“A lot of these kids don’t have any good Christmas memories – like making cookies, playing games, getting new gifts, and seeing Santa,” observes Boehme.

Delivering hot pizza for the party, flanking Santa and the Elves, are Pizza Baron’s Jeff and Bill Dayton.

Pizza feast caps event
We meet case worker Stacey Mahler in a large room, deep in the office complex, that has been turned into a holiday luncheon café.

Looking at the smiling, giggling kids pouring in, Mahler comments, “These kinds have a lot of disruptions in their lives. Events like this provide the setting for a positive visit with their mother, father or siblings – sometimes kids are sent to different foster homes.

“We have fun activities to do. It gives back to them when most it is unpleasant and negative stuff. When they get here they have a good time together.”

Community pitches in
Kids make a beeline to the hot, bubbling pizza provided by Bill Dayton’s Pizza Baron, just up the street. Their eyes light up as they see the “Dot Cakes” provided by Saint Cupcake.

And, both parents and kids take home more than memories.

Caricature artist Sam Arneson draws ‘toon pictures of kids for 5 hours; elves take instant photos of kids visiting Santa. For the youngsters, Christmas comes early, in the form of all kinds of toys – ranging from plush animals to bicycles.

“What makes this possible is the generosity of businesses and organizations in our community,” Mahler confides.

She asks us to acknowledge the major sponsors: Pizza Baron, Safeway on SE 122nd Avenue at Powell Boulevard; N.W. Priority Credit Union; Ace Hardware on SE 122nd Avenue. at Division; Saint Cupcake; On Line Credit Union; The Vance Foundation; Portland Winter Hawks; FGG Inc.; and Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 290, which made a grant of $1,000.

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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