Reforms proposed to improve child safety, investigations

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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

An overhaul of Montgomery County Children Services announced last week — after a year in which children died or were allegedly abused despite intervention from the agency — is a first step toward improving the safety net for children here and across Ohio, advocates said.

But they also said additional reforms are needed, some of which will require legislative changes. Proposals are coming from a state task force, state lawmakers, a local advocacy group and Montgomery County Children Services itself.

“We want this change to be lasting,” said Polly Parks, co-founder of the grassroots group Takoda’s Call formed after the December 2019 death of Takoda Collins, allegedly at the hands of the child’s father after prior abuse reports to Children Services.

ExploreTimeline of Dayton Daily News coverage of children services controversy

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s Children Services Transformation Advisory Council — created in November 2019 to to improve Ohio’s child welfare system — will wrap up its work this month and soon bring recommendations to the governor.

The council held listening sessions across the state, followed by group meetings collecting input from experts across the child welfare spectrum. Draft recommendations obtained by the Dayton Daily News include:

  • Creating regional training and technical assistance hubs to help county agencies adopt best practices.
  • Standardizing screening of child abuse and neglect reports so they are handled consistently.
  • Creating a statewide ombudsman office to act as an independent entity to investigate complaints against children services agencies.
  • Bringing in attorneys on behalf of both the children and the families earlier in the court process to advocate for the child and help the family navigate the process.
  • Requiring stronger justification for extending the one-year timeframe agencies have to reunify families before pursuing a permanent placement for children.

‘The state is ready’

Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Anthony Capizzi, who sits on the governor’s advisory council, said this last measure is key for holding caseworkers accountable. And the increased training is important to make sure they have the resources to do the job.

“I don’t think we’ve been training people as well as we should and could,” he said, adding this also applies to law enforcement, judges and others in the child welfare system.

Capizzi said these and dozens of other changes will go to the governor this year, with the goal of getting them into law and practice in 2021.

ExploreWhat changes do local lawmakers support to children services investigations?

“The state is ready for this kind of reform,” he said. “In certain particular aspects of juvenile justice or child protection issues, we are behind the country and we are hoping that the governor … continues to show his leadership and moves forward in the implementation phase right after the start of the year."

Takoda’s Call has advocated for creating an independent ombudsman.

“Depending on the scope of the new statewide (children services) ombudsman, this is definitely a much needed layer of support and protection,” Parks said.

Children Services wants changes

Asked what legislative changes Montgomery County Children Services officials support, agency spokesman Kevin Lavoie referenced two areas:

  • Requiring automatic notification to Children Services whenever a child is removed from school for homeschooling. “We respect the rights of parents to homeschool and make the best decision for their families,” Lavoie said. “However, we rely on teachers and school staff as mandated reporters, and there have been instances where abusers have used homeschooling to hide children from mandated reporters.”
  • Allowing children services more freedom to share data among the statewide child welfare database, public assistance programs and child support programs. “This sharing would help our caseworkers to understand the family members and services they are receiving as part of our interview and investigation process,” he said.

Lavoie said the county is also working with entities including Hamilton County, local children’s hospitals and the state to improve how they share medical history information about children in the agency’s care or those who are part of an investigation.

‘Strategic vision’ unveiled

Montgomery County Children Services on Tuesday unveiled an overhaul plan for the agency that includes a restructuring of positions; updating their “red flag” policy; increasing staff training; and clarifying policies dealing with emergency circumstances, interviewing all household members and dealing with non-cooperative parties.

“We’ve made changes that will bring greater community engagement, and we are improving training and processes to better support families and protect children,” said Judy Dodge, Montgomery County Commission president.

Several of these changes align with recommendations from Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck, who did his own review of the agency earlier this year.

ExploreChildren Services: Governor-ordered review finds shortfalls

“Hopefully, with these much-needed changes and with new leadership, Children Services will respond promptly and appropriately to the needs of children who are or are at risk of being abused or neglected,” Heck said last week.

Parks, with Takoda’s Call, said she is withholding judgment until she and the community have an opportunity to see the revised policies and training documents.

“I am hopeful that these new policies, procedures, and (other) changes will help better protect and serve the children of Montgomery County, and prevent any further cases like Takoda’s,” she said. “I believe that together, with everyone on the same page, we can make a difference for the children in our community.”

Tragedies led us here

Montgomery County Children Services has been under scrutiny since 10-year-old Takoda of Dayton died of what police reports call “extreme abuse” after the boy’s mother and school officials reported suspected abuse multiple times.

ExploreAgencies meant to keep abused boy alive rarely spoke

DeWine ordered a review of Montgomery County processes in February after learning an infant also died after a brief Children Services intervention when the baby was born with marijuana in his system. That review — like state inspections before it revealed by the Dayton Daily News — found systemic failings at the county agency and proposed changes overseen by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

In March the Dayton Daily News reported that a Montgomery County Children Services caseworker was under investigation for placing two young children in a home with two sex assault suspects.

Dayton police also announced policy changes in June after a Dayton Daily News investigation found that officers had been at Takoda’s house multiple times before he died.

State lawmakers

State Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., said he is drafting legislation he hopes to submit this year that explores five main issues:

  • Putting children services agencies back under independent boards in large counties like Montgomery County, instead of having them report to county commissioners.
  • Improving information sharing between children services agencies and law enforcement officers.
  • Improving funding for children services agencies to bring down caseworker-to-client ratios.
  • Increased training for caseworkers.

“The changes (the county) laid out are a step in the right direction but it’s not a deep enough dive,” Plummer said.

Plummer’s Democratic opponent Leronda Jackson said children services agencies need more resources and communication with schools, police, physicians and others involved in the child’s life.

“It’s very difficult for me to understand how you can condemn someone, or condemn a particular department, when you know they don’t have what they need,” she said. “Give them the resources. I would vote to give them the money and the resources they need to make the necessary IT upgrades, hiring upgrades, training or whatever, so they are running a great operation.”

Senate debate

The candidates for Ohio’s 6th Senate district, which covers most of Montgomery County, discussed Children Services reforms in a virtual debate debate sponsored by the Dayton Daily News on Thursday.

Democrat Mark Fogel said that while Takoda’s case was a “tragedy of accountability,” Ohio’s children services agencies, like schools and mental health services, are underfunded.

“We don’t build a thriving society and take care of the most vulnerable in our community by demanding that they live in a system where they can so easily fall through the cracks," he said.

His opponent state Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, laid blame squarely at the feet of Montgomery County Children Services.

“Montgomery County Children Services is fully responsible for his death,” Antani said. “I believe ... that the state must intervene in ensuring county children services agencies do their job so no one suffers like the family of Takoda Collins again.”

Staff Writer Chris Stewart contributed to this report.

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