Deonza Watson remembers the hotels.

The rain-soaked parking lots and damp towels. The empty closets. The disheartening sense of last resort when the state of Oregon had nowhere else to place children abandoned to its care.

One night haunts her: that lockdown with an 11-year-old foster child who brought so much music into the room. "The kid was so amazing. So talented," Watson says. "He played an Ed Sheeran song on his keyboard."

And he came unglued when Watson interrupted a catatonic 13-hour solo with his favorite video game. "Throwing remotes. He spit on me." By the end of the night, Watson's fellow child welfare aide had teeth marks on her body, Watson remembers: "There was toothpaste all over the room. He was pouring coffee and water everywhere."

Oregon Child Welfare's instructions when a child showed that talent for blowing up a room? "They basically told us to run. If the kid comes after you, run!" Watson says. "And when you're locked in a hotel with a kid, there's only so far you can go."

When the Department of Human Services was so strapped for psychiatric beds it shuttled foster children to the nearest Holiday Inn Express, it also found itself trapped.

So in the summer of 2017, it called New Avenues for Youth.

(From left) Tabitha Jensen, Robin Donart and Deonza Watson care for children at Robinswood, a haven in Lake Oswego that has aided more than 250 kids in Oregon’s foster care system. (Will Corwin)
(From left) Tabitha Jensen, Robin Donart and Deonza Watson care for children at Robinswood, a haven in Lake Oswego that has aided more than 250 kids in Oregon’s foster care system. (Will Corwin)

New Avenues is familiar with emergency phone calls. For 22 years, the Portland nonprofit has been a sanctuary for homeless teenagers. It recognizes the panic of a child—or a state agency—with nowhere else to turn.

That summer, Child Welfare was overwhelmed by bad press and a federal class-action lawsuit for diverting its most troubled youth into hotel rooms, not foster homes. DHS needed breathing room, respite and reinforcements.

"We came in at the height of everyone freaking out," says Tabitha Jensen, New Avenues' director of strategic initiatives. "We weren't the first call. It was outside of what we do. But we're more and more involved in child welfare service delivery because such a huge percentage of kids who age out of foster care end up on the street.

"The kids languishing in hotel rooms weren't being serviced, so in our mind they were homeless."

New Avenues went to work, and New Avenues is pretty damn creative. It teamed with Youth Villages, a residential treatment program, to open a haven at the south edge of Lake Oswego. Grabbing a name from a nearby neighborhood, they called it Robinswood.

In the beginning, Robinswood was hotel diversion, and nothing more. A pass-through. Temporary reprieve for the state's most abused, neglected and traumatized kids, disproportionately black or LGBTQ.

Tabitha Jensen is director of strategic initiatives at New Avenues for Youth. She innovated to create Robinswood, where traumatized children find reprieve.(Will Corwin)
Tabitha Jensen is director of strategic initiatives at New Avenues for Youth. She innovated to create Robinswood, where traumatized children find reprieve.(Will Corwin)

That stop-gap has evolved into something more. Over the past two years, Robinswood has been a stabilizing force and placement for more than 250 youth, ages 9 to 20, helping to move many of them toward trauma-informed foster homes or family reunification.

"These are not the easiest children and youth to deal with," says Fariborz Pakseresht, head of the Oregon Department of Human Services. "New Avenues stepped up."

Maybe there's a foothold here for the rest of us. DHS has long been the shame of state government, generating painful headlines and routinely failing the state's neediest children. Deonza Watson and Robinswood provide a glimmer of hope that new management and a fresh approach to seemingly intractable problems are finally making a difference.

The trauma is so severe, the workforce so bruised, the resources so limited, it's a wonder Oregon's child welfare system survives.

At the high-acuity end of an agency that serves more than 8,000 youth, the reservoir of caretakers is severely depleted. Pakseresht estimates the agency lost 30 percent of its experienced workforce in 2016, the year before he took the reins. The annual turnover among child care providers, who typically earn between $12 and $17 an hour, is even more dramatic.

"They aren't paid enough to live a regular life," says Craig Opperman, president and CEO of Looking Glass Community Services in Eugene. "And the challenges the young people present are more dangerous than they were in the past."

Many of the children are violent. They're dealing with post-traumatic stress. They haunt the room with the numb stare of fetal alcohol syndrome. Their psychological triggers are not easily identified or countered. When the state unemployment rate hovers around 3 percent, foster parents and child care workers can find far less stressful ways to earn a living.

(Will Corwin)
(Will Corwin)

"'A child needs a loving home'? That's a nice story. It's just not my kid," says Francis Maher, executive director at St. Mary's Home for Boys. "My kid was born to a drug-addicted mother. He was neglected and removed from the house at 3 months. He has pre-verbal trauma, seven placements, a history of abuse, depression, failing at academics, and a seething, unresolved resentment about his family unit. He doesn't know how to communicate those feelings. He's angry as hell and rightly so."

Yet Pakseresht, the new DHS director, has, by several accounts, brought a measure of calm to a world where there are few victories and only the rarest sense of job fulfillment.

Since arriving from the Oregon Youth Authority in 2017, Pakseresht has earned the respect of most of the state's child care providers. He has stood firm in dealing with a Legislature that uses DHS as a punching bag. He is overseeing a recruitment drive to add 300 new caseworkers this year, most of whom will receive annual salaries of $48,000 or more.

"His style of leadership represents a paradigm shift," Maher says. "He is completely collaborative, rather than adversarial. He owns the problems. He's been a strong advocate for the providers, the people who put the kids to bed at night and wake them up in the morning."

"Humility and grace in action," says Ben Sand, who oversees Every Child Oregon, a private initiative that responds to inquiries about foster care from each of the state's 36 counties. "He's tireless. He refuses to make excuses."

"We've been a constant voice of concern for vulnerable young people. DHS was not always listening," says Sean Suib, New Avenues' executive director. "When [former director] Erinn Kelley-Siel ran the agency, I couldn't get her to return my phone calls. Now, Fariborz has me on speed dial."

Two years ago, Pakseresht made the call that resulted in Robinswood.

Robinswood’s brain trust found ways to soothe the anguished children in their care—including painting the walls in muted colors. “We had to bolt all the furniture to the floor,” says Tabitha Jensen (center). (Will Corwin)
Robinswood’s brain trust found ways to soothe the anguished children in their care—including painting the walls in muted colors. “We had to bolt all the furniture to the floor,” says Tabitha Jensen (center). (Will Corwin)

For all its experience with chaos and pain, New Avenues wasn't prepared for the dysfunction that came through the door at Robinswood.

The low-shouldered two-story building, flush with gables, sits downhill from the former Christie School, overlooking the Willamette River. When Suib and Jensen designed the facility—"we were well-intentioned, not well-informed," Suib admits—they envisioned a campus setting with high-level psychiatric care and low-supervision dorms. Jensen wanted the space to feel like the home most of the kids had never had. She hauled in plush leather couches and bookshelves with sharp corners. She lent color to the walls.

"I found all this cool art," she says. "Dachshunds with party hats on.

"They ripped all that shit off the walls."

The youth lash out in cold-blooded despair. They resort to the physical and sexual aggression that formed them. They respond in kind to the chaos of the child welfare system. "They bust up the drywall every day, throwing radios," Jensen sighs. "We had to bolt all the furniture to the floor so these kids are safe when they're in reptile brain."

New Avenues adjusted.

They beefed up security—locked doors and alarms—to ensure the kids' physical safety. They muted the colors on the walls to slow the pulse of youth who are already overstimulated. They began working to embed medical and mental health services at the facility so the kids would no longer be shipped out to random, and harried, therapists around town.

And knowing it takes one positive relationship to make a difference in a child's life, they hired Deonza Watson away from DHS.

Watson, 35, was quite the adventure as a teenager in North Portland. Handed too much responsibility and too little emotional support at home, she lashed out at school. "I was terrible," she admits. She was on the verge of expulsion for fighting at George Middle School when its longtime principal, Dave Masunaga, got in her face.

"He told me he'd seen better for me than the road I was heading down," Watson says.

She responded to, and justified, his faith in her. When her older sister, Jameia, was diagnosed with sickle-cell disease, Watson took charge of her medical care whenever she was released from Emanuel Hospital. When Jameia died of complications from the disease, Watson stepped into the breach and became legal guardian for her two children, ages 3 and 4.

"I was better equipped than anyone else," she says. "When I first took them in, their dad was incarcerated. It wasn't like he was an option."

All that helps to explain the perspective Watson brings to Robinswood. Her nephews had no chalk in the events that wrought such upheaval in their lives. That's also true for many of the "kiddos" now on Watson's watch.

"They don't choose to be in this situation," she says. They were abandoned or abused. When the resulting trauma triggers destructive behavior, she deals with the trigger, not the fist-sized hole in the wallboard.

"I need to know what the problem is before I can help them," Watson says. "I can't fix something I don't know is broken."

Deonza Watson (above) tries to deal with the trauma of children at Robinswood, not just their behavior. “I get real with them,” she says. “That’s all I can do.” (Will Corwin)
Deonza Watson (above) tries to deal with the trauma of children at Robinswood, not just their behavior. “I get real with them,” she says. “That’s all I can do.” (Will Corwin)

She is frank with the teens at Robinswood. "I get real with them. That's all I can do," Watson says. "I don't disclose my entire history, but I disclose enough to let them know I understand. I make sure if I can't follow through with what I'm telling them, I give a reason why. When I was growing up, there was never a follow-up conversation."

That she's African American is often crucial in that conversation. New Avenues is known for its work with marginalized communities, and that history is especially important here.

Only 18 percent of DHS employees are people of color, compared to 33 percent of the children in foster care.

"Psychiatrists of color who know what it's like to grow up black or Native American in foster care? They just aren't there," says Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland.

In the past year, 43 percent of the youth entering Robinswood hailed from communities of color. Too many arrive, Jensen says, "feeling unheard, unseen and uncared for."

New arrivals to Robinswood are met by a staff where 45 percent identify as people of color and 24 percent are LGBTQIA2+.

For the Warm Springs exile, the teenager who has been sexually trafficked, the queer kid, the child already marginalized in the system, Jensen says, that means they are "coming to a program where they can relax for a moment, and not feel completely 'othered.'"

Whenever possible, New Avenues also looks to repair the fractured system beyond its doors.

In early summer, a DHS caseworker could not break away to drive a Robinswood youth to the child's next placement in Medford. Instead, the caseworker sent secure transport: a retired police car, with a hard plastic seat and a barrier between front and back seats. A stranger was at the wheel, one authorized, upon entering the facility, to use handcuffs and straps to restrain the youth if they didn't agree to get into the car voluntarily.

(Will Corwin)
(Will Corwin)

Now and then, Jensen says, secure transport makes sense. Kids are a threat to run. You may need to minimize the risk for both child and caseworker.

"But there's a parallel here to hoteling," Jensen adds. "When it began, I don't think anyone thought it would become common practice. But when you have a staffing crisis at DHS, it saves time and it takes the pressure off. It's just not the best for the kid. It's another case where a foster child is told they're a criminal because they're in the foster care system."

Robinswood decided that wouldn't happen again on its watch. New Avenues argued it only wanted to release teenagers to secure transport if the youth voluntarily agreed. That means kids from Robinswood won't arrive at their new homes feeling like a UPS package.

"We are constantly negotiating," Suib says. "I can't tell you how many meetings we've had. They've created a level of care at Robinswood that didn't exist before. They've allowed us grace and resources to meet needs as they emerge."

Why? Because New Avenues was both creative and committed. New Avenues asked, "Why would we do any less for these children than we would do for our own?"

Most of the youth they serve have been roughed up from day one. They don't always have the attorney, court-appointed special advocate or care team they deserve. They don't have many more chances to be pulled back from the edge.

"We stepped up when no one else would," Jensen says, "but we haven't solved the problem. We're chipping away at it. And we struggle on the days when kids aren't thriving here. Not every child does."

New Avenues, fortunately, has been dealing with that reality for 20 years. So they bolt the furniture to the floor. They tell the middle schooler they see better for him than the road he's heading down. They don't wait for someone else to take the lead.

"This is such a broken system," says Jensen, "we could spend another 10 years excavating things to be outraged about. At a certain point, the horse is so dead. We get it. Now, how do we fix it? How do we stop the blame game and come together, in all earnestness and humility, to work toward solutions?

"I find it hard to believe that if the Cascadia earthquake happened, we couldn't find a way to bring our resources together," Jensen adds. "We're talking about 8,000 kids. This is our World Trade Center."

WW is grateful to have received support for this article from both the Jackson Foundation and the Journalism Fund for Willamette Week.