A Dayton Daily News investigation into child deaths has sparked lawmakers and officials to call for a closer look at Ohio’s child welfare system.
The investigation examined the number of times Ohio children have died after being returned to the custody of parents with known histories of abuse and neglect. The newspaper profiled 19 such cases and found that Ohio lags behind national standards for child safety and is dead last in the state share of funding for its child welfare system.
“As a child who was in foster care briefly at one point in my life, we need more people to step up and create good foster homes for kids,” Secretary of State and Republican gubernatorial candidate Jon Husted said Tuesday. “We all need to collectively find ways to be a light for those kids in their lives.”
Husted noted that Ohio funds children services differently than other states, relying more on local levies. But just 47 of 88 counties maintain a property tax levy that supports children services, the newspaper investigation found.
The remaining 41 counties have to rely on county general revenue funds — where they compete against other funding needs — for more than half of their budget, according to the Public Children Services Association of Ohio.
“This is one of those things, that we’ve got to do a better job with these kids,” Husted said. “There are a handful of kids that are in terrible, tragic circumstance and we have to help them.”
READ THEIR STORIES: 19 children who died after being returned to their birth parents
State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, said it’s clear from the investigation that the system isn’t working.
“The safety of a child should be first and foremost,” he said. “I would be interested in seeing an exhaustive review of all these cases. What common denominators were there?”
Children services cases are confidential in Ohio, and each county varies in how much information officials will make public even after a child has died. The Daily News pieced together details on the deaths after gathering information from the Ohio Department Job and Family Services, court documents, death certificates and other records.
After the death of 2-year-old Demarcus Jackson of Cincinnati in 2011, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine pushed for an overhaul of Ohio’s child welfare system. But DeWine, who is also running for the Republican nomination for governor, said that effort didn’t do enough to curb deaths from abuse and neglect.
If elected governor, DeWine said he will convene a group to look at the system anew.
“We have caseworkers that are just over-worked. Their caseload is just too high,” he said. “They are dealing with too many kids.”
Funding is a major issue, DeWine said.
“While we are facing very difficult budget times in the state, we are going to have to spend more money from the state on the child welfare system,” he said. The situation is dire for counties that don’t have a levy.
“I don’t frankly know how they get by,” DeWine said. “I don’t know how they do the job.”
Both Husted and DeWine said the opioid epidemic is putting more pressure on an overloaded system.
Earlier this year, DeWine announced a $4.4 million grant to help children services agencies in 18 southern Ohio counties combat the opioid epidemic.
Called Ohio START (Sobriety, Treatment and Reducing Trauma), the program involves partnerships between children services agencies, behavioral health providers, and juvenile courts to provide wrap-around care for addicted parents and their children. DeWine would like to see that program expanded state-wide.
DeWine said he also wants judges and magistrates to hear more often from foster parents before making placement decisions. Foster parents often are the best source of information on the child, he said, but they are not required to speak in court, meaning judges are deprived of all the information they need.
The Daily News found numerous cases where children died days or weeks after being returned to the home of their birth parents.
Roxy Barr of Springfield, who is raising a grandchild, said she doesn’t agree with the “unwritten rule” in Ohio that a parent has a legal right to raise their children, regardless of signs of abuse or neglect.
“You really have to prove how unfit the parents are,” she said. “What about the children’s rights?”
She said the blame doesn’t lie with children services case workers, who she says work hard, but with the legal system.
State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, has worked with local families on children services cases, including one in which a Montgomery County boy was returned to his mother’s care despite evidence that the mom repeatedly left the 22-month-old alone while she went to work.
“That child does not belong with his mother,” she said. “The system is such that reunification is just the thing, but I think your story points out the fallacy of that. We’ve got a lot of dead kids and that’s just very frustrating.”