Child deaths spark look at state’s child welfare system

‘Child Safety Summit’ aims to improve state system

Nearly half of all Ohio families whose children are placed in foster care are reunited in less than a year — a rate higher than in most states and well above the national average, a Dayton Daily News investigation has found.

After the tragic deaths of Makayla Norman of Dayton and DeMarcus Jackson of Cincinnati, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has been holding a series of summits around the state to examine whether the state’s child welfare system needs an overhaul. A common theme of those summits is that reunification is happening too soon or happening when it should not happen at all.

Two-year-old DeMarcus Jackson was beaten to death Sept. 23, 2011, only a month after being returned to the custody of his biological family. His father, Antrone Smith, has been charged with murder, and his mother, Latricia Jackson, has been charged with child endangering.

At Smith’s first hearing, his foster mother, LaTasha Tye — who raised him for all but the last few weeks of his short life — sobbed openly. She cried out, “I tried to save him. I tried to take him back. I tried. The county failed my baby. I told them he wasn’t ready to go. All he wanted was me.”

A year later, the family is still asking questions. “Why are these kids being put back into these awful situations?” asked Tye’s aunt, Shona Harris of Cincinnati. “He was a sweet, cheerful little boy who loved to sing and dance. My niece and her husband were the only mommy and daddy he knew. They tried to fight for him, but nobody listened.”

An investigation by the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office found that DeMarcus’ caseworkers followed the law, but his death, as well as several other high-profile local cases, have raised questions about whether reunification is coming too quickly in some cases.

High statewide reunification rate

Ohio children entering foster care for the first time are being reunited with their families at a rate of 47.6 percent within the first six months, in comparison with the national median of 39.4 percent, according to the latest statistics from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

Some see that statistic as a measure of the state’s effectiveness in reuniting families; others agree with Harris that “they’re not evaluating these families as well as they should.”

That is a top concern for DeWine, especially after presiding over eight Child Safety Summits held from April through August. “Virtually every foster parent dealing with these kids tells us that reunification is coming too early, and that the kid is sometimes going back to a dangerous situation,” DeWine said.

Other high-profile cases have recently shocked the public and dominated local headlines. In Middletown, Shawn and Joanna Blackston have been charged with locking their 12-year-old daughter in the basement for a month.

In Dayton, 14-year-old Makayla Norman, a cerebral palsy patient, weighed only 28 pounds when she died of starvation March 1, 2011. Her mother, Angela Norman, has been sentenced to nine years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

In Troy, Kenneth Brandt stands accused of raping his three adopted sons and allowing other men to have sex with at least one of them.

In Springfield, James and Vonda Ferguson were convicted of multiple counts of child endangering, felonious assault and rape against their five adopted children. They were accused of using extreme forms of punishment against their children between 2000 and 2004, hitting them with hammers and belts until they bled, forcing them to eat excrement and burning them with irons.

“Too often, we only look at these issues when there’s a tragedy and a child gets killed,” DeWine said. “There are issues out there every day that affect kids’ lives, and we’re not talking about it enough.”

That is why the final Child Safety Summit, held in Youngstown Aug. 22, will be followed by the convening of an advisory group representing all sides of the issue. The advisory group will examine a handful of other key issues identified during the summits, including the length of time that kids are allowed to remain in foster care; the exclusion of foster parents’ voices from court hearings when decisions are made about the child’s future; the effectiveness of guardian ad litems and whether they are truly acting as independent advocates for the child; and the quality of foster care and how to improve it.

Many speakers voiced concern about the state’s planned permanent living arrangement category (PPLA), a custody status in which parental rights of a child are maintained, reunification efforts are not required, and adoption is not possible. DeWine sees it as an end run around the state’s time limits on the amount of time a child can spend in foster care. “These kids are put on a shelf and forgotten,” DeWine said.

Former foster children make a difference

Alex McFarland of Dayton, 22, knows just how painful the PPLA policy can be for kids in foster care. Four years ago, he became one of the more than 1,000 foster children in Ohio who “age out” of the system every year without being adopted or reunified with their families. Being on PPLA, he said, is the equivalent of telling kids they are unadoptable and that society has given up on them. “You get the message that there’s something wrong with you; you aren’t good enough.”

Foster children face practical obstacles as well: They’re prohibited from getting a driver’s license, for instance, and must rely on friends or public transportation to get to their jobs and school events. McFarland worked as a manager for Jack’s Pets and did not think about going to college until it was suggested by his mentor at Montgomery County Children Services, Doris Edelmann, the agency’s transition coordinator.

“I liked my job at Jack’s and I couldn’t see beyond that,” McFarland recalled. “Doris told me I could do anything I wanted to do.”

Only 3 percent of Ohio children who age out of foster care go on to graduate from college. “The lack of housing is a big part of the reason,” Edelmann explained. “A lot of colleges close for the summer, so the student has to choose between having a roof over their heads or completing their education.”

Yet McFarland is now a senior at Miami University with a double major in anthropology and zoology. He traveled to Borneo and Japan recently conducting anthropological research. He dreams of becoming a veterinarian and studying primate cultures.

He maintains a relationship with his biological family, but he misses the benefits of a more stable traditional family. “I spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with my friends,” he said. “Going to Miami, not only does everyone have parents but everybody’s parents pay for everything. I’m always being asked, ‘What? Your Mom won’t pay for that?’”

He serves also on the Ohio Youth Advisory Board, an advocacy and lobbying group that aims to improve state policy. “If you want change, you should get youth involved in their own case plans,” he said. “That way they become invested in their own success and learn how to solve problems and to become an adult. It should be a holistic approach to this person as a child, rather than a case plan.”

That, after all, was the key to his own success in life. “I was really fortunate — I didn’t get adopted, but I got adopted by Doris Edelmann and other folks at Montgomery County Children Services,” McFarland said.

Edelmann applauds the spirit of McFarland and the Ohio Youth Advisory Board. “Their philosophy is, ‘If you’re going to make decisions about my life, don’t do it without me.’”

Adrian McLemore, 26, of Trotwood, was also emancipated from the Montgomery County foster care system and has since served as a powerful statewide advocate for youth, founding the ODJFS youth advisory board. The PPLA plan worked for him, because he did not want to be adopted and longed only to live with his sister. “But an exception like my case shouldn’t be the norm for everyone,” he said. “Not feeling a sense of belonging is very tough to get over. You feel like no one wants you, no amount of training or counseling can change that.”

That is why he stepped in as “Uncle Dad” three years ago, briefly suspending his studies at Wright State University, when his sister’s two children were removed from their home. “I didn’t want a second generation of our family going into foster care, and I already had a strong bond with the kids,” he explained.

Today the kids are back with their mother, and McLemore, a senior political science major, is back on track with his studies and pursuing his dreams of becoming Dayton’s future mayor.

His biggest recommendations for improving Ohio’s child welfare system include giving children more voice in their own future and offering more training and support for foster families. “So many determinations are made when quite often young people aren’t even consulted,” McLemore said.

The April 19 Dayton summit highlighted the complexity of the problem. Two sets of birth parents testified that their children had been abused in foster care. Yet longtime foster parent Jim Keubler gave emotional testimony about his first foster child, a boy named Charlie, who died in 1981 after going home to his family. He said there is no process for foster parents to appeal a decision to return children to their birth parents.

“The reunification philosophy is so strong that the safety of the child is completely overlooked,” Keubler said. “In five of our cases of reunification, the child has been injured or killed. Thirty years from now we’ll be asking ourselves, ‘What were these people thinking what were they doing to these kids?’”

Others believe in the state’s philosophy of reunification, whenever possible, but wish it could be accomplished with more support for birth families and foster families and more positive interaction between the two. Karen Ezirim, a Columbus mother of 10, became involved with the foster care system at the age of 18, when she realized she could not properly care for her two young sons. “The biggest issue in Ohio is that they should learn to develop a plan to strengthen a family,” she said. “If I had been embraced and taken in by a foster family who saw the best in me, it would have helped a lot.”

Echoed Dot Erickson, a longtime foster mother and board member for the Ohio Family Care Association, “We need to encourage friendships between the foster family and the birth family. The common understanding is that foster families are supposed to be saving children from their families, and barriers get erected.”

‘Someone at least should have listened’

As a result of the Child Safety Summits, children’s welfare agencies and prosecutors now have access to juvenile court records when making custody decisions. Noted Melinda Sykes, director of children’s initiatives for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office,”Demarcus’ father had a recent arrest for violent crime, and the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office didn’t know about it.”

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters said of the new law, “I am certainly in favor of anything that might improve the child welfare system and help children services agencies, but we must remember that the bad guys in this case are Antrone Smith who is charged with killing DeMarcus Jackson and Latricia Jackson who is charged with child endangering.”

Shona Harris believes DeMarcus’ death could have been prevented, if only someone had listened to her niece. “Marcus never got OK with visiting his birth family,” Harris said. “She had to rip him away from her. She voiced her concerns and nothing was done about it. If she’s reaching out for help, someone at least should have listened to her concerns.”

Deters’ office conducted an extensive investigation of the Hamilton County JFS workers, but concluded they followed the law. “After reviewing the voluminous records in this case, it is clear that the JFS workers and court personnel involved followed the law and no criminal charges are appropriate,” Deters said in a press release. “There was nothing in the detailed notes and progress reports that could have predicted such violent behavior by the father.”

DeWine said that illuminates a common theme from the Child Safety Summits: “The foster parents who know the most about the kids’ lives are not included in court hearings when the decision is being made about the future of the child. They have to communicate through the caseworker and they’re not allowed to talk directly to the judge.”

DeWine hopes the as-yet-unnamed advisory group will conduct further investigations and brainstorm possible solutions.

“I have the bully pulpit of the Attorney General’s office, and after the homicides in Cincinnati and Dayton, I intend to use it to examine what’s wrong with our systems,” he said.

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