County children services fail state standards as abuse claims rise

Montgomery County Children Services failed to meet standards for child safety in state-mandated reviews during a time when reports of abuse and neglect made to the agency ballooned, according to a Dayton Daily News investigation.

The Dayton Daily News used Ohio public records law to obtain copies of the last two reviews of the county agency by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Ohio law requires these reviews to be done every 24 months but the last two were 41 months apart — in March 2016 and September 2019.

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The newspaper requested these records after our earlier investigation into the death of 10-year-old Takoda Collins in December found that Dayton Public School teachers say they reported abuse concerns to Montgomery County Children Services at least 15 times. Police have accused Takoda’s father and other caretakers of abuse over an extended period of time.

Montgomery County Children Services won’t answer questions about Takoda, citing the investigation, other than to say they didn’t have an open case at the boy’s home at the time of his death. They won’t say if they previously had an open case there. County officials say they are reviewing how they handled earlier reports of abuse and neglect of Takoda.

The agency answered several detailed questions from the Dayton Daily News about the agency’s operation in general.

Our investigation found:

• The number of reports of possible abuse or neglect made to Montgomery County Children Services grew from 9,400 in 2015 to 10,450 in 2019, which can include multiple complaints about the same child, according to the county. This resulted in 3,330 investigations in 2015 and 3,782 in 2019.

• Montgomery County improved on its 2019 review but still received a “not achieved” score on every rating in the state’s 2019 state review — including safety, child placement permanency and well-being.

• Staffing levels have fluctuated in recent years, from 143 caseworkers in 2016 to 177 in 2019, then down to 165 today.

• Workers in the 2019 review were less-experienced. The average intake worker in 2016 had 17 years of experience. In 2019, that fell to six years of experience.

• Average per worker caseloads for intake staff increased from 11.8 to 16 cases from 2016 to 2019. Workers handling open cases saw caseloads stay about 12. Meanwhile cases have gotten more complicated, experts say, amid the opioid epidemic.

• The budget for Montgomery County Children Services jumped to $84.2 million last year, up from $80.5 million or less since 2015.

• Ohio DJFS officials say they perform an administrative review every time a child dies with a connection to children services. But that practice only started last year and state officials haven’t done a full review of a Montgomery County child’s death since 2008.

Jewell Good, assistant director of Montgomery County Children Services, said the state review is one of several oversight mechanisms.

“ODJFS reviews are extremely helpful in that they offer another perspective on how we can evaluate our work to better serve our families,” she said in a statement to the newspaper. “We voluntarily submit to a similar review from the Council on Accreditation, and we’re one of a dozen Ohio counties accredited through COA. Our staff has shown a great commitment to continuous improvement.”

RELATED: Dayton teachers reported abuse concerns for years before child’s death

Montgomery County in September 2019 responded to the state’s review with an improvement plan. That plan, being implemented now, calls for increased training and safety plan monitoring; speeding up the process for permanent placement of children; and doing a better job of getting medical and educational information for kids to monitor their well-being.

Montgomery County commissioners oversee children services. Commission President Judy Dodge said she is horrified and saddened by Takoda’s death.

“We are working and being very supportive of the review by the prosecutors office, by the state, by everyone. So we are here to help,” she said and declined further comment.

Screening process

For its 2019 review, the state looked at 15 cases; 10 in-home and five foster care cases. They also interviewed family members, caseworkers, supervisors, children, and foster and adoptive parents. To be in compliance with each standard, 95 percent or more of the cases reviewed must meet goals related to safety, permanency and well-being.

State rules give children services two options when handling abuse and neglect complaints. One option is to open a “traditional response investigation,” which leads to official findings, a case plan and possibly court intervention.

The other is called “alternative response,” and is used when reports do not allege serious harm. The alternative response focuses on providing services to the family and a safety assessment.

Of the 10,450 reports of possible abuse or neglect received last year, nearly two-thirds of them were screened out. More than 3,780 led to an agency investigation. Most of those — 2,036 — were handled as alternative response cases.

When asked how the agency decides to open an investigation or screen one out, children services said agency supervisors are responsible and are guided by state law.

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Rules requiring child contact not met

The 2019 state report lays out how child mistreatment reports should be handled. Ohio Administrative Code “requires an emergency investigation to be initiated with an attempt for face-to-face contact with the alleged child victim to assess child safety within one hour from the time the report was screened in,” the report says.

The rules then call for additional attempts to meet the child within 24 hours and 72 hours. Additional contact must be made with someone who has knowledge of the child’s condition, as well as a parent, guardian or caregiver.

The 2019 state report found that these standards applied in five of the 15 cases reviewed. The county agency didn’t meet these standards in one those cases. That was an improvement from the 2016 state review that found assessments were initiated days late in some cases, and a face-to-face contact occurred sometimes late or not at all.

“Although assessment/investigation initiation activities have improved, Montgomery County DJFS continues to struggle with timely face-to-face contact with children subject of an (abuse or neglect) investigation … This includes ongoing attempts for contact every five working days until the child is seen,” the report says.

Montgomery County Children Services won’t say whether reports about Takoda became traditional investigations or alternative response cases, or if a caseworker ever met Takoda face-to-face. A Dayton police report from 2018 says a police officer visited the home after police were contacted by both a teacher and children services worker, but the officer found no one home and closed the case after reporting back to children services.

It’s unclear if Dayton police knew about the children services reports during two other interactions.

County reviews Children Services’ handling of 10-year-old who died after alleged abuse

In November 2018, Dayton police had Takoda in the back of a police cruiser after his father called complaining the boy was unruly. Dayton also police responded to an abuse allegation from Takoda’s mother in May 2019. Police records say the officer talked to Takoda’s father, but don’t say whether they spoke to Takoda.

Other measures missed

Other safety measures where Montgomery County fell short in the 2019 state review include reports of maltreatment in foster care, and assessing risk and safety concerns while children are in their homes or foster care.

“The areas of practice that impacted the agency’s outcome for this performance measure included initial contact with children involved in an assessment/investigation, assessing all household members and monitoring safety plans,” the report says.

The report noted that the agency did what was needed in most cases and improved from 2016, when there were concerns with initial and ongoing risk assessments in 14 of 15 cases reviewed. But it still fell short of what was needed for the state to say it met the standard in 2019.

Other areas in the 2019 review identified by the state as needing improvement included finding permanent placement for children. The review found court processes slowed this down, and that the 210 children in permanent custody of the county was higher than the statewide average.

The 2019 review also found the agency isn’t communicating enough with schools or medical providers to make sure the educational and health needs of children are met.

Ohio Administrative Code requires the state reviews children services agencies every 24 months, but the 2016 and 2019 report are 3.5 years apart. State officials stress they were in contact with Montgomery County Children Services between these two reports, overseeing improvement plans and a separate federal review.

“Previous stages occurred within the 24-month cycle, and we expect to remain on schedule,” said a statement from Ohio DJFS spokesman Brett Crow.

In addition to the two-year review, Crow said the state last year began conducting a review of all child fatality cases with a connection to children services. Prior to that, such reviews were done on request and hadn’t been done in Montgomery County since 2008.

MORE: State lawmakers seek independent review of Dayton boy’s death

“It was decided that supplying more substantive feedback about child fatality cases and agencies’ adherence to federal/state laws and policies on a regular basis could improve the safety and security of children,” Crow said.

Eleven such reviews have occurred statewide since the rule change. None were in Montgomery County.

‘Crisis a decade in the making’

The case load of local children services intake caseworkers has increased in recent years.

In 2016, the average case load for intake workers was 11.8, according to the state reviews. That increased last year to an average of 16 cases per intake worker.

The average case load for employees who handle open cases stayed relatively flat — 12.35 cases per worker in 2016 and 12 cases last year, according to the the state reports.

Scott Britton, assistant director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, said national recommendations for case loads have shifted recently, now calling for fewer cases. The older recommendation called for 12 cases for people doing investigations, and it’s now eight to 10 cases.

This change is mainly because of the opioid epidemic, he said, which created more complicated cases with children suffering more acute trauma and parents more severely addicted than with other drugs.

At the same time, Britton said, children services agencies across the state struggle with hiring and retaining caseworkers. The pay isn’t competitive, he said, and studies have shown the work can leave people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He’s not surprised an agency wouldn’t meet the state standards, which he said are based on federal standards and set high.

“In an unpredictable kind of environment that has increasingly complex cases with an unceasingly unstable workforce, it’s not surprising,” Britton said, calling it “a crisis that has been a decade in the making.”

Britton said he’s encouraged that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has emphasized reforming Children Services. DeWine created an Office of Children Services Transformation, which held listening sessions across the state and released initial findings last week.

MORE: Dayton teachers seek law to protect kids like Takoda Collins

Those initial findings identified several areas needing improvement statewide, including recruiting and retaining more caseworkers, reducing caseloads to prevent burnout, and a formalized statewide child fatality review.

A dispute last year over pay for Montgomery County Children Services caseworkers led to a strike and court intervention. It was settled with a contract that included a 4.5 percent pay raise.

Base pay for Montgomery County caseworkers ranges from $19.60 per hour for someone with no experience — the job requires a bachelor’s degree — to $30.31 per hour at the top of the scale, according to the current union contract.

Jane Hay, president of the local union that represents caseworkers and other child welfare workers at Montgomery County Children Services, said workers at the top of the pay scale haven’t gotten a raise to their base pay in years.

“These workers spend so much time on these cases. These caseworkers can be out till 8, 9 (p.m.) sometimes. They don’t get much time with their own families,” she said. “It takes its toll on them. The burnout is unreal with these people, the trauma.”

‘We want to find solutions’

Takoda’s grandmother, Kelly Sandoval, said she believes someone needs to held accountable for not taking more action before Takoda died.

“You have to follow up on these reports,” Sandoval said. “Someone should have done something for Takoda.”

She hopes lawmakers will find a better way to protect children.

In the months since Takoda’s death, a local group of activist has formed Takoda’s Call to demand change with the way the state handles child abuse cases.

“There are so many questions that we feel need to be answered,” organizer Polly Parks said. “The community has questions and we don’t have the answers. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

She said the group wants to work with lawmakers and others to help children be more safe.

“We want to find solutions, protect children,” Parks said. “There are children in our city and county that are at risk, so what are we going to do?”

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