An internal review of Butler County Children Services shows the agency did not do enough in a case involving a 12-year-old girl who was locked in a Middletown basement allegedly by her parents for nearly a month.
The report, obtained by the Middletown Journal/Hamilton JournalNews, indicates changes are needed in the agency’s procedures.
“The most significant observation from this case review is the number of opportunities the agency had to intervene with the family to alter the outcome of this case,” Shannon Glendon, BCCS quality assurance manager, wrote in the report. “It should be noted that it is impossible to predict with certainty that the outcome would have been different; however it is vital to analyze the interventions and decisions in each department to identify areas of improvement.”
The report comes on the heals of an ombudsman’s report released earlier this month that recommended disciplinary action for BCCS employees who may have failed to respond to allegations before the child was found in a fifthly basement.
Last month, an anonymous complaint of abuse led Butler County Children Services to investigate Shawn Blackston, 40, and Joanna Blackston, 36.
After children services staff members saw the “deplorable living conditions,” Middletown police were notified and the children were removed from the home that day. The six children who lived in the Philadelphia home — ages 15, 14, 12, 9, 3 and 2 — are in foster care.
Charges of kidnapping and felony child endangering were filed against Shawn and Joanna Blackston on July 6 when they were found and arrested in a Sharonville motel.
The girl, a sixth-grader in the Middletown City Schools District, had been allegedly locked in the basement since June 18, about a month after her last day of school.
There were several locks on the door that led to the basement, according to police.
There was only a mattress in the unfinished basement, and the glass block windows were covered by sheets or wood, eliminating light from coming inside, according to police. One light bulb hung from the ceiling.
The agency already had an open case with the Blackston family and had conducted home visits at the residence before July. Monroe attorney Randy Turner, guardian ad litem for a 15-year-old sister, said there were a number of red flags that something was wrong at the Blackston home. He said his ward was punished once by being made to watch the other children open Christmas presents when she had not been given any, and she was also punished by being placed in the basement.
Butler County Children Services Director Jeff Centers said Tuesday the oldest child taken from the home did ask that someone check on her sibling’s living conditions, but follow up by the agency did not happen soon enough.
“We have to be vigilant at all times,” Centers said. “To make sure we are not missing anything.”
He added, “we deal in a world of gray, cases are not always black and white.”
While children may have motives to make allegation or act out, which the agency must investigate, considering what it taking place in the entire family is a must, Centers said.
“We have to be more child centric,” he said.
Following the report of Bill Morrison, the agency ombudsman who reports to the county commissioners, Centers said, “I am not going to sugar coat it, we could have done better and the public expects us to do better,” Centers said. “This family fell through the cracks.”
Morrison said in his report, “it is a crime to lock children in their rooms. Every BCCS case worker in every home visit should be looking for reversed door locks (to prevent exit rather than entry) and demand the locks be changed or removed before leaving the residence. They should call law enforcement to accomplish this purpose.”
He said “a case where parents say the problem is out of control teenagers and children claim unfair or abusive parents is a common case for child welfare. It is the agency’s challenge to discern the truth. In many cases this is difficult to determine. It is the agency’s mission to protect children, and the agency should believe children, absent significant evidence to the contrary.”
Five BCCS employees were placed on administrative leave after the incident. The employees placed on leave are caseworkers Alicia Green and Serina Knight; supervisors Tricia Kelly and Mike Brock; and Julie Gilbert, intake director, according to Centers.
Green, Knight and Kelly have returned to work and there was no disciplinary action taken. Brock and Gilbert remain on leave.
Centers said the agency is still considering if disciplinary action is warranted.
Ohio Department of Job and Family Services is also investigating. Officials there indicate that investigation may not be completed for 30 days.