Child welfare agency agreements could get more scrutiny

Montgomery County Children Services Haines Center
Montgomery County Children Services Haines Center

Montgomery County Children Services approved a new agreement last week that details how child abuse should be reported and investigated, but a bill pending in the Statehouse could require uniform, statewide standards.

House Bill 4 aims to prevent deaths like that of Takoda Collins, a 10-year-old who died in 2019 after abuse allegations were already reported, said state Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., the bill’s primary sponsor.

“This legislation works to prevent any cases from failing through the cracks,” Plummer said in his sponsor testimony. “We believe the system failed Takoda Collins and changes must be made to prevent this from happening again.”

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A Dayton Daily News investigation uncovered that police were called to Takoda’s home multiple times before his death. School employees also told this newspaper that they made multiple calls to Children Services before Takoda was pulled from school by his father, Al-Mutahan McLean, who now stands accused of the child’s death along with his girlfriend and her sister.

A pending settlement has been reached in a lawsuit filed by the estate of Takoda Collins against Montgomery County for $3.25 million and assurances that changes have been made at Montgomery County Children Services, according to the estate’s attorney, Michael Wright.

Last week, Montgomery County Commissioners approved an update of the county’s memorandum of understanding with dozens of entities that report or investigate child abuse cases.

The updated, four-year agreement spells out with greater specificity the roles and responsibilities for responding to emergency and nonemergency reports of abuse and neglect, and the standards and procedures for handling investigations, said Michelle Niedermier, Montgomery County Director of Job and Family Services.

“We’ve added certain provisions in this document to make it more meaningful, and to include a level of detail so it’s clearly understood the relationship and engagement of each party depending on the situation,” she said.

Currently the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services has little involvement with public children services agency memorandums of understanding, according to a state analysis of the proposed legislation. But the agreements would come under greater scrutiny if HB 4 becomes law.

The bill passed the House by 92-2 in May. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear the measure for the first time this afternoon.

The state department would create a model MOU for counties to follow, and audit each children services agency’s agreement every two years to determine compliance. Those failing the standards must submit aplan to the state, according to the current legislation.

Signatories of Montgomery County’s MOU include its Children Services and prosecutor’s office, multiple county courts, Dayton Children’s Hospital and 29 local police agencies. The county has a similar but separate agreement with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Niedermier said.

“It’s specifically understood if someone is reporting child abuse or neglect to Children Services, that if there is criminal activity also included in that complaint/concern phone call, that law enforcement or 911 should be engaged simultaneously,” she said.

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The previous MOU, signed in 2017, came before municipal and county police were made mandated reporters. Ohio was the only state that didn’t require police to report child abuse prior to a state law taking effect in 2019.

While area law enforcement were parties to the previous agreement, Niedermier said the 2019 law change received added attention in this year’s update.

“Our expansion is to clarify and make sure everyone is on the same page regarding how we work together and the exchange of information,” she said.

As of May 31, Montgomery County Children Services had 663 children in care. During 2020, the county screened in 3,955 abuse and neglect investigations. This year through April, 1,563 referrals have been made on reports that required additional investigation, according to the county.

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HB 4 would also create a Children Services Ombudsman Office within the Department of Job and Family Services for investigating and resolving complaints on behalf of children and families involved with those who oversee foster care or the placement of children, according to the bill.

The proposed legislation also requires children services agencies to disclose confidential information discovered during investigations to federal, state and local government entities, and requires cross-reporting from children services agencies and law enforcement, including written notice of a receipt of report or close of an investigation.

Another provision in the bill allows a juvenile court to issue with probable cause an order authorizing caseworkers to interview a child who may be abused or neglected if the child’s parents or guardian refuse to give access to the child.

If the law passes, the additional measures will cost both counties and the state more to administer, according to the state’s fiscal analysis.