Children Services: Governor-ordered review finds shortfalls

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Dayton Daily News reporters are holding accountable area agencies tasked with keeping children safe from abuse or neglect, and investigating whether their decisions have left children at risk.Here is a timeline of our recent coverage:

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

A state review of Montgomery County Children Services spurred by the deaths of children after their families were involved with the agency identified shortfalls in how the agency operates.

The review found the agency does not do enough to assess whether children are at risk, and it does not follow-through with making sure children and families get needed services.

The review also concluded that a strike by union employees last year made the situation worse.

The Dayton Daily News obtained a copy of the report summarizing the review’s conclusions using Ohio public records laws. In April before the review was released, Children Services pledged to increase training for caseworkers and make other policy changes.

RELATED: Timeline of Dayton Daily News coverage of children services controversy

But some involved in the county’s child protection work say more needs to be done: changes to state law, increasing the number of caseworkers or putting the agency back under an independent board instead of being part of Montgomery County Job and Family Services.

In February Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the review by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services after the deaths of children who had prior involvement by Children Services, including 10-year-old Takoda Collins of Dayton.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Takoda Collins video

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Takoda died in December after what police reports call “extreme abuse.” His father is facing abuse charges. Records show the boy’s mother and school officials reported suspected abuse multiple times before the boy died.

DeWine’s office said he ordered the review also because of a second incident in which an infant died after being born with marijuana in his system and the Children Services investigation was too brief and incomplete.

DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said the governor is “disappointed in the outcome of the review.”

“As a United States Senator, (DeWine) included language in (federal law) that emphasized the importance of a child’s safety in all child welfare decisions. Unfortunately, that was not always the case in Montgomery County,” Tierney said.

Strengths, but flaws

The review was presented to the county administration this month. The report says the review found “many strengths” but also “identified systemic factors that impacted caseworker practice and supervisory oversight of assessments/investigations.”

Debby Shaw, deputy assistant director at Montgomery County Children Services, said in an interview last week the agency values the input they received from ODJFS, the governor’s office and county administration.

“It’s going to come together to improve us,” she said. “Child protection is really important in our community and we take it very seriously.”

Findings included:

- For the cases reviewed, only 37 percent of informal child safety assessments were judged to be comprehensive enough.

- In many cases the agency wasn’t making timely contact with the children or all household members, and often wasn’t gathering information from sources such as other children services agencies or service providers.

- Agency staff did not always follow through to make sure families actually obtained services deemed necessary for the children or adults in the home.

The review found that the agency frequently identified services needed by a child to address things like mental or physical health and proper development. But in 18 percent of those cases no services were provided prior to case closure. In 21 percent the case record didn’t make clear whether services were delivered.

In the majority of reviewed cases the caseworker found the adult involved in the child’s life also needed some sort of service – regarding issues like domestic violence, mental health, parenting practices and household management. But in 34 percent of the cases where intervention was deemed necessary, no services were provided, and in another 27 percent the record didn’t make clear if services were delivered.

READ THE FULL REPORT HERE: 

DeWine ordered the review to focus on “alternative response” cases, because that was how some of the cases, such as Takoda’s, were handled. Alternative response is supposed to be used when reports to Children Services do not allege serious harm has come to a child. The alternative response doesn’t include substantiating the allegation. Instead staff members provide services to the family and a safety assessment.

The report said the agency did properly classify cases as needing alternative responses and did perform the required assessments in most cases.

Strike impact

Another finding from the state’s review was that a 10-day strike in September by union-represented agency employees impacted the agency’s performance. Roughly 350 people went on strike, leaving 68 employees to keep the agency running, many of whom weren’t qualified to do child welfare case work, the report says.

“Although assessments and investigations were being initiated and safety plans were monitored during the strike, numerous assessments evidenced gaps in contacts with families and delays in recording assessment activities in (the statewide child welfare database) due to staff being on strike,” the report says.

Professionals Guild of Ohio (PGO) represents about 270 child welfare workers who handle abuse and neglect cases for about 2,000 children. FILE
Professionals Guild of Ohio (PGO) represents about 270 child welfare workers who handle abuse and neglect cases for about 2,000 children. FILE

State and local officials with the union, the Professionals Guild of Ohio, say the county forced the strike by refusing to give Children Services employees raises that went to other county offices.

“The strike didn’t cause these problems,” said PGO Executive Director Chauncey Mason. “Perhaps the strike was a result or symptom of underlying problems with the county and how it is handling Children Services.”

County officials said local Children Services worker pay is the highest in southwest Ohio and the smaller raise they were offering was fair.

Staffing debate

Jane Hay, president of the local PGO union, said the agency has dragged its feet on hiring since the strike and has about 26 unfilled positions. She said four more people quit last week and another 10 are on their way out, frustrated with working through the coronavirus pandemic without any more pay than county employees who stayed home.

She said the discussion of policy changes and training is important but misses the real problem: a shortage of caseworkers.

RELATED: Union: Caseworker shortage undermines Children Services’ reforms

“We are on a downward spiral fast,” she said. “(Caseworkers) are doing the best they can but obviously when you’re carrying 18 to 20 cases you’re not getting as much time to spend where you should be.”

The PGO says the county should consider putting Children Service back under an independent board like it was prior to 2006 when the agency became a department of the county.

Montgomery County officials say their staffing is based on caseloads. Agency spokesman Kevin Lavoie said the average caseload is currently 14, which is comparable or lower to other counties in southwest Ohio.

“We are taking a very close look at each and every vacancy and determining which positions need to move forward to be filled based on our budgetary state,” Shaw said.

Agency making changes

The ODJFS review did not make any specific recommendations beyond advising the county to stick with improvements proposed earlier in the year after Montgomery County did an internal analysis directed by County Administrator Michael Colbert.

Those changes were summarized in an April memo to ODJFS, obtained by the Dayton Daily News. The memo calls for revising policies related to dealing with uncooperative families and when to elevate “red flag” cases for more input from management and the county prosecutor’s office.

RELATED: County children services fail state standards as abuse claims rise

It also includes providing additional training to caseworkers on conducting thorough assessments of child safety and risk, and on verifying that families actually received needed services.

“We look forward to implementing this, to improving practice,” Shaw said.

Additional recommendations were made last week by Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck that relate to the Takoda Collins case. They include giving police conducting welfare checks more information about current and past abuse or neglect allegations at the home, and improving communication with school personnel who report suspected abuse.

Change may have broad impact

One of Heck’s recommendations is to send a letter to mandated reporters who report suspected abuse or neglect notifying them that they can request certain information about the case. Heck said he spoke to a group of about 100 teachers at a recent training who complained about the mandated reporting process.

“Their complaint was, ‘We never hear anything back,’” he said.

Montgomery County Children Services officials say they are working with ODJFS to change the statewide child welfare database to automatically send out a letter to mandated reporters about what information they can request.

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

That change has the potential to improve communication between mandated reporters and children services agencies statewide, said Montgomery County Job and Family Services Director Michelle Niedermier.

“It’s something we think is important to keep those lines of communication open,” she said.

Polly Parks, head of a grassroots group Takoda’s Call formed to improve Children Services, said improving communication with mandated reporters “could have helped Takoda,” as well as changes requiring every adult in the house of a Children Services case to be interviewed.

Additional reforms

State Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., said: “There needs to be a review of the entire process in Montgomery County. We need to look at all the policies and procedures, training, and accountability issues.”

“We also have to ensure that the organization is properly funded by the county and protecting our children is a priority,” he said. “If what the union members are telling us is true, it looks like the caseload for the caseworkers is extremely high.”

Another reform proposed by Takoda’s Call was to create an independent role or group to review Children Services decisions and complaints.

Shirley Stallworth, left, and Polly Parks, members of Takoda’s Call , speak with Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert following Tuesday’s county commission meeting. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
Shirley Stallworth, left, and Polly Parks, members of Takoda’s Call , speak with Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert following Tuesday’s county commission meeting. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

Heck was lukewarm to this idea, saying his office already reviews cases. DeWine’s spokesman likewise said ODJFS has regular oversight of the agency and recently started reviewing every child death related to child welfare.

There have been 38 such deaths statewide this year, including five in Montgomery County, according to ODJFS officials.

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, however “strongly” supports the idea of an independent ombudsman. She said as a legislator she has been asked on several occasions to look into situations where constituents were concerned about the welfare of a child, but was stonewalled by the agency.

“One of those cases haunts me to this day,” she said.

Another proposed change supported by Heck involves giving law enforcement access to children services data in the field so they can know if there was an abuse complaint in the past if they pull up to something like a domestic violence call.

“I think that’s something we would like to see done,” Heck said.

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