Oregon Department of Human Services Building Well-being initiative highlights redesigning human services that work for all of us
Our mental health needs have increased since the start of the COVID pandemic. In fact, the prevalence of anxiety and depression has increased 25 percent since the start of the pandemic, according to a March 2022 press release from the World Health Organization.
“Families are multi-faceted and their needs spread into multiple systems. We are all responsible to make sure families’ needs are met and that those services are accessible and equitable. This aligns with our North Star. The Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) Equity North Star initiative’s goals relate to supporting our staff, families and providers in a way that is fair and supportive.) We know mental health needs are increasing since COVID, much of it due to isolation that is impacting family life,” Kellie Barber said. She is the ODHS Child Welfare Senior Operations Manager for District 2, Multnomah County.
Fixing the gap for community and families’ well-being
Families that work with ODHS who also have mental health needs require more support than they have been receiving. To this end, several community resources formed a mental health collective. This group includes the Community Care Organization (CCOs) Health Share, Care Oregon, Oregon Health Authority, representatives from the juvenile justice system and school officials.
Barber shared an example of how this collective works to prevent escalating crisis situations in families and how this in turn helps create overall well-being:
“The Oregon Child Abuse Hotline got a call from a school official. The school official was concerned about a student not doing their homework and will not engage in anything at school. The caller said they contacted the parent but the parent did not engage. The school official expressed concern the child was being neglected at home and was affecting the child’s school performance.”
An ODHS caseworker went to the child’s home and talked with the child’s mother. The child had just tested on the autism spectrum and the mother did not know how to help her child. Adding to the family stress, the mother was grieving over the death of her partner and could benefit from mental health counseling.
“The case worker said to the child’s mother: “I can connect you with resources and mental health services that can be provided in an hour. Do you know what services are available through SSP (Self-Sufficiency Programs)’? Barber said. “We ask, ‘What are your current needs?’ then we help them get what they need, whether it’s school help, mental health, food, whatever is needed.”
Additionally, the family needed to be understood and communicated with in their own linguistic dialect.
“We then made a short plan about how to help this family. None of the partners – the school, mental health services, SSP, the mother’s family or Child Welfare (CW) knew each other. So, we had everyone come to the table and we identified how to be the least intrusive to help her,” Barber said.
The results of this collective work
The child remained with the mother. The team put together a short-term plan that included respite help. The child is getting Development Disabilities services. The school meets weekly with the mother and she is trying to manage her trauma.
“The mother was doing what she could, but she didn’t know how to ask for help. We helped identify a support system for her. She now has a list of people who can help her if needed. And now no one is saying she is not engaged in helping herself and her family,” Barber said.
To further prevent crisis for families, CW and SSP meet with local school district staff once a month to navigate any issues. The collective wants to make sure families are being honored, they are safe and their well-being needs are met.
“A lot of what we do is create nets of hope, dismantle any misperceptions and then build a bridge for understanding safety and well-being,” Barber said.
Some immediate goals include: integrating public health into all intersections of child safety, welfare and permanence; recognizing there are issues caused by poverty; and orchestrating in a more collective way for our elderly and our families. Aside from the collaboration work the collective is doing within ODHS and other government systems, the group also wants to become better integrated in the business community. They are also working with The Contingent, a non-profit organization in Portland.
“What if we were able to identify families that needed housing and employment support and we had the business community come to the table and say they can leverage five apartments? Businesses can leverage resources and expand the why of community – this is so essential. It’s an investment in ourselves. This is our collective opportunity to move our community into well-being,” Barber said.