Prosecutor: Reforms needed to end ‘shroud of secrecy’ in child abuse cases

Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck Jr. has recommended changes to local child abuse investigations and an end to what he called a “shroud of secrecy” around the reporting, investigating and responding to child abuse and neglect.

Heck released Tuesday a list of eight reforms to help his office, Montgomery County Children Services, local schools and law enforcement better protect children. These changes don’t require state law revisions, he said, and can be implemented immediately.

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Most of the changes address a lack of communication between these agencies, which is an issue revealed by Dayton Daily News reporting of several recent tragedies. Heck said efforts to protect the privacy of families causes “a lack of transparency between agencies and the public that creates cracks in the system that children then fall through.

“This shroud of secrecy must be eliminated, torn down, as it only seems to hide the inadequacies of the system, what has not been done, and protect the abusers — the very ones we want to protect our children from,” he said in a statement announcing the reforms.

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Heck said in an interview with the Dayton Daily News that his office found 15 local cases of child deaths or serious physical harm dating back to late 2019 where “the downfalls in these cases” were issues his reforms would address.

“If something else had been done, and even these recommendations would have been followed then, I firmly believe there would have been a different result in many of these cases,” he said.

Those cases include Takoda Collins, a 10-year-old boy who died in December despite reports from his mother and school officials of suspected abuse made to both Children Services and Dayton police. His father, Al McLean, is charged with endangering children, felonious assault and rape.

Timeline: The tragic life and death of Takoda Collins

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered a review in February of how Montgomery County handles certain types of cases after Takoda's death and the death of a baby who died after a Children Services investigation into the baby being born with drugs in their system was closed after 12 days and without talking to both parents.

RELATED: Here’s what the state is reviewing at local Childrens Services after 2 deaths

Then in April the Dayton Daily News published an exclusive investigation that found Dayton police were investigating a Montgomery County Children Services caseworker for allegedly placing a 4-year-old girl into a home with two known sex assault suspects and then leaving the child in the home after the girl and her 5-year-old brother said she was sexually abused there.

The proposals

Heck’s eight recommendations are:

1. All relevant parties to an abuse investigation should be interviewed. If the caseworker can’t complete an investigation because of an uncooperative parent or not having access to the alleged child victim, the caseworker will elevate the severity of the case and involve the prosecutor’s office.

Caseworkers should review the prior criminal and children services histories of all adults in the home of a child with an open case. This review should include accessing both state and national background databases.

Additional layers of oversight are recommended before a child can be placed in a home with someone convicted or repeatedly charged with certain crimes.

2. When a referral is received from school personnel, more information should be shared with the school by Children Services so the agencies can work together to assess if the child is at risk. If a child with a prior Children Services referral is not attending school, Children Services should follow up to ensure there is no neglect or abuse.

Mandated reporters who make a report of abuse or neglect should get information in return, making it clear the referral was accepted. Mandated reporters should also be notified that they are entitled to request information on whether an investigation is open, if the agency is otherwise involved with the child, the general health and safety of the child, and whether the report resulted in the filing of a complaint in juvenile court or criminal charges.

3. Caregivers should get infant care classes, including information on safe sleep practices before an infant is placed in a home.

4. Cases involving allegations of sexual abuse, physical abuse or extreme neglect should be reviewed by the prosecutor’s office when there have been prior allegations involving that child or caregiver, or when a parent refuses to agree to needed mental or physical health treatment for the child.

DDN Investigates: County children services fail state standards as abuse claims rise

5. New allegations of abuse or neglect in open cases should be reported to the agency’s intake division, and allegations of sexual or physical abuse in an already open case should be made to law enforcement.

6. When police are asked to do a welfare check of a home, officers should be given information from Children Services regarding the substance of the abuse or neglect referral, as well as information about prior referrals and investigations involving the child or caregiver.

7. Regular manager’s meetings involving the prosecutor’s office Child Protection Unit and Children Services were recently reinstated.

8. The director of Montgomery Count Job and Family Services should be notified whenever a caseworker is disciplined for failure to comply with agency procedures. The Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office should be notified of the outcome of state evaluations of Montgomery County Children Services.

Agencies, advocates react

Montgomery County Children Services spokesman Kevin Lavoie said Tuesday that his agency is already implementing many of the recommendations, which are in line with improvement plans recently approved by the state.

“Montgomery County Children Services has been working in collaboration with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and our prosecutor’s office to review past practice and identify areas for improvement,” he said.

Dayton police issued a statement Tuesday saying the recommendations “are well thought out and provide strong guidelines for handling potential child abuse cases in our community.

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“Improvements in communication among agencies will help to ensure no critical information is lost,” the police statement says. “This can only benefit not only our investigations, but also those of Children Services, and cases involving the prosecutor’s office.”

Polly Parks, president of the grassroots group Takoda’s Call, said her group was still reviewing the proposals but she personally believes they are a step in the right direction.

“If they would have been following these practices and procedures, nobody has that crystal ball, but I think Takoda would be with us,” she said.

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