What changes do local lawmakers support to children services investigations?

The Dayton Daily News surveyed state lawmakers who represent Montgomery County, as well as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to ask their views on proposed reforms to Ohio children services agencies based on issues identified at Montgomery County Children Services.

Reforms have included creating an independent ombudsman to review children services complaints, and increasing access to children services records for entities such as law enforcement, media and family members.

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

Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck Jr. recently put forward several improvements the county can make without changing state law, including making child abuse and neglect investigations more thorough, and increasing communication with the prosecutor's office, police, schools and mandated reporters.

We asked:

1. What are your thoughts on whether more oversight is needed of children services agencies in Ohio? What do you think about increasing access to children services case files when there’s allegations of agency misconduct?

2. What are your thoughts on removing privacy barriers between children services and law enforcement agency records? What do you think about the idea of giving officers access to (state child welfare database) data in the field?

Here are their responses, some of which have been edited for length.

Sen. Stephen Huffman, R-Tipp City

“We need to make sure that children who are in danger are protected. Crimes against children are especially sickening and heinous. We must do better, and owe it to their memories to protect others living with abuse. I believe the prosecutor’s recommendations are an important first step in discussing what we in the general assembly can do to improve the law.”

Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering 

1. “I strongly support the suggestion from Takoda’s Call that an ombudsman be appointed. It would be critically important however that the ombudsman’s role would be to advocate for the child and not the agency or the parents.”

2. “I do think that law enforcement needs to have greater access to children services information. This information needs to be treated confidentially, but you have to wonder if police officers had had access to Takoda’s file if he wouldn’t be alive today. Certainly the fact that no one answered their knock at the door might have at least warranted a return visit.”

Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp.

1. “We should absolutely have better oversight of Children Services. This will consist of a law change where other agencies have access to the data and certain components of the reports. We need to protect the identity of our victims while giving the necessary agencies access to certain records … We have to eliminate the current process where (Children Services) maintains all the records and there is no check and balance. We can actually accomplish this with proper technology to improve communications among agencies. The state should also come up with a statewide database where every county is required to enter data like they do in New York.”

2. “We definitely need to remove privacy barriers while protecting the identity of the victims. I will address that legislatively.”

Rep. Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton

“I believe oversight is important. My experience has been that the agency is open to transparency and accountability. But the big concern with an agency whose main objective is to reunite families, is that by opening too many access points to information could compromise the ability of Children Services to obtain accurate and truthful information from their clients. Maintaining the balance of upholding the integrity of the agency while ensuring information shared in confidentiality is vital to better serve children. While accountability and transparency are certainly very important, the agency will have a difficult time doing its job if it loses the cooperation of the community it serves. There may need to be a pursuit for accountability or transparency, but it has to be done in a thoughtful way. At the end of the day, I am open to any way that would get us to the point where we are reuniting families in Montgomery County and ultimately, keeping children safe.”

Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg

“The tragedy that occurred to Takoda Collins revealed striking issues that need to be addressed in Children Services. Any and all proposals to fix these issues should be given due consideration, and I know Rep. Plummer is working on a bill to deal with this. Certainly, another child cannot fall through the cracks like Takoda did, and the children services agencies must be held accountable for their failure.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s office

1. “ODJFS conducts regular oversight of county public children services agencies (PCSAs), as mandated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2019, the administration also instituted a new child fatality review oversight process to ensure that any child welfare-related deaths were adequately investigated. Oversight alone, however, will not result in improvements to the system. We also must partner with our county agencies to provide support, training, and other resources that our agencies need to implement best practices.”

2. “Numerous state and federal laws inhibit sharing certain child welfare information. However, there are national examples of jurisdictions that have figured this out and realized a dramatic reduction in child fatalities. Gov. DeWine challenged the Department of Job and Family Services to review national best practices to see how Ohio could enhance data sharing between law enforcement and children services.”

The following lawmakers did not respond: Jim Butler, R-Oakwood; J. Todd Smith, R-Farmersville.

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