Preventing child abuse, neglect
Ford Scholar brings personal experience to her work
The foster care system is too familiar for Pamela Heisler. She knows firsthand the type of struggles families face before they lose their children.
That’s why she accepted a new position in January with the Children’s Trust Fund of Oregon, which aims to prevent child abuse statewide by providing parents the resources they need to create safe, stable homes for their children.
eight different foster homes
The former Pamela Butler lived in about eight different foster homes from the age of 7. Prior to that, she stayed with her mother and stepfather; both had untreated mental illness. Her family spent a lot of time living in cars. Her parents were involved in criminal activity.
By age 14, she was living with a wonderful family who wanted to adopt her.
Suddenly, a court decided to send her back to live with her mother.
“That was ridiculous,” Heisler, now 30, recalls. “It was like being with strangers. I was ripped away from my home.”
The arrangement didn’t succeed. From the knowledge she’s gained during her career in child-abuse prevention, she knows why. “None of the risk factors had been dealt with.”
Heisler explains that child abuse and neglect have a broad definition: It can be lack of housing, food, stable electricity, medical attention.
Add in other risk factors like poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, recent divorce, lack of education, untreated mental illness, and the chance of abuse only increases.
“A lot of this is preventable,” she says. “If we can work with families at this point, a lot of them can be addressed.”
Through her work as a child abuse prevention specialist with the Children’s Trust Fund, Heisler says she believes Oregon is on the right path. She joined a group of advocates that was successful in persuading the Oregon Legislature to invest $9.4 million toward home visiting programs.
“Home visiting has one of the highest evidence bases of any program,” she notes.
Reducing risk factors
Studies show the parent or caregiver is responsible for about 94% of confirmed cases of child abuse or neglect. Home visiting programs aim to reduce families’ risk factors by meeting with them from pregnancy through the child’s first two years of life.
The Trust Fund’s work helped land another $27 million for pre-kindergarten programs, such as Relief Nursery programs, early learning hubs and more.
Heisler says the minimum cost of putting a child in foster care is about $27,000 annually. Rather than taking such a drastic move, it’s more cost effective to help families pay the rent, get an education or obtain treatment for mental health issues.
After a disastrous couple of teenage years with her mother, Heisler returned to foster care and also picked up a mentor through the Court-Appointed Special Advocates program.
Her CASA mentor insisted Heisler attend college. The teenager applied for every scholarship she could find. As she graduated from Centennial High School in Gresham, she was named a Ford Scholar.
“It was huge, and not just financially,” she says, remembering the many notecards of support she received and the fellowship and inspiration generated at the summer conferences. “It was pretty cool for a foster kid in college.”
Heisler graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and business administration. Then she began working as a child welfare policy manager for Children First of Oregon. She also founded and directed the Oregon Foster Youth Connection Program.
She decided graduate school should be the next step of her journey. She earned her master’s degree in public administration and nonprofit management last summer.
She also achieved a personal milestone she once thought inconceivable. She married David Heisler, a paramedic, last September.
“I didn’t grow up dreaming about a wedding. I didn’t see relationships that were happy,” she says. “I didn’t think I could connect with people like that, but he’s my rock — steady and secure.”
Still, the traumatic experiences of her childhood have left her with a lot of fear and anxiety. She has a tough time trusting stability. “There are very few things I take a hard stance on. There’s no black and white,” she says. “Life is complicated.”
With her husband’s support, and the great therapists and mentors she’s had in her life, Heisler feels stronger every day. Strong enough, that one day she expects the couple will have a family of their own.