Child Safety the Focus of Cuyahoga Council HHSA Committee Meeting

The May 16 meeting of the Cuyahoga County Health, Human Services and Aging (HHSA) Committee was a content-rich meeting that lasted more than two hours, as the committee was briefed on changes that are coming to the administration of the Cuyahoga County Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). After several high profile child fatality cases, the agency has faced questions and scrutiny about its processes and procedures, as well as demands for reform. The full Cuyahoga County Council has scheduled two committee meetings for the HHSA committee to discuss DCFS, as well as be briefed on any changes.

After several high profile child fatality cases, DCFS briefs Cuyahoga County HHSA committee on administration of DCFS Click To Tweet

The May 16th meeting was the first of two meetings, the second happened on May 23 and will be covered in a future report by The Center for Community Solutions. The five HHSA committee members were joined by Cuyahoga County Council President Dan Brady and Councilwoman Sunny Simon. Together, more than half of the full county council was present for the hearing. More than a dozen community members and several members of the media also attended the meeting. The Chairwoman of the HHSA Committee, Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell, read a prepared statement about the purpose of the meeting, as well as the role that council plays in protecting children’s safety through the policy process. Conwell contrasted this with the process of removing a child, which is done by a court.

There are currently 2,311 children in the custody of Cuyahoga County DCFS

After several members of the public testified, the council heard from Cynthia Weiskittel, Director of the DCFS. Weiskittel gave a presentation that highlighted the statutory duties of the agency to investigate reports of child abuse, the agency’s desire to pursue family reunification, as well as the overarching goal to preserve and ensure each child’s safety. Weiskittel shared that there are currently 2,311 children in the custody of the DCFS. The agency has an annual budget of $142 million, and at full staff would employ 488 Child Protection Specialists, but currently 22 of those positions are vacant. Weiskittel then showed a flow chart illustrating the process the agency uses, starting with a phone call coming into the agency. She outlined the protocol that the agency uses to “screen in” and investigate each complaint, as well as the points of investigation to determine what the appropriate resolution should be. Last year, the hotline (696-KIDS), received 35,897 calls, of which 14,117 calls were “screened-in,” meaning they warranted additional investigation. Fifty-one percent of the cases reported physical abuse and 45% reported neglect. Once a call is screened-in, if it is an emergency, a child protective services worker is dispatched within one hour. If it is a non-emergency call, a response is given within 24 hours. Weiskittel also walked the council through the county’s process to make a determination of custody and placement. Such decisions are made during a Team Decision Making (TDM) meeting. committee then heard about the state-mandated , a special unit which investigates deaths and makes recommendations to protect children moving forward.

Last year, the hotline (696-KIDS), received 35,897 calls, of which 14,117 calls were determined to warrant additional investigation.

Councilmembers peppered Weiskittel with questions about the numbers mentioned in the presentation, as well as other data that was not included. Councilwoman Shontel Brown asked about the increase in number of children in DCFS custody, 2,311 in 2017, up from 1,600 in 2016. Weiskittel said that some of the increase is due to the opioid epidemic. Councilman Dale Miller pointed out that there are at least six points in the decision making process where an error can be made, to which Weiskittel responded that the agency does its best. One of the things that Weiskittel said she would like to see is an increase in funding for the transportation of children to foster care families, which sometimes falls on county employees. This takes valuable time that could be spent on further investigations. .

Councilman Houser asked if Cuyahoga County examines other counties for examples of best practices. Weiskittel replied that while the county is constantly examining ways to improve, it’s currently held in high regard and used as an example of a national best practice for HHS services in a large urban area. Even so, it is difficult to recruit for the agency, because it is a hard and trying profession.

The Director of the DCFS said morale is very low at the agency, maybe “3 or 4” out of 10.

Councilwoman Brown asked about morale. Weiskittel said morale is very low at the agency, maybe “3 or 4” out of 10. She explained that it is difficult to keep morale up because of the weight of the subject.  Additionally, there seems to be a heightened awareness around the negative things that happen, but very little awareness, appreciation or public praise for the good work that those who work in the agency do. The agency also deals with negative perceptions, as members of the public see them as “baby snatchers.”

Conwell asked a series of questions on the impact of increasing case loads, as well as conducting exit interviews so the agency is constantly on the lookout for what went right and what went wrong.

The council president ended the question and answer session by saying the council has a responsibility to examine the processes of the administration, and he cautioned against the inquiry being seen as a method to impugn the integrity of the agency or the people who work there. Weiskittel said she appreciated the ongoing support, and committed to being open and transparent about improvements. Beginning May 29 and going through the end of June, the county will do a series of listening tours for the public to give their feedback.

After public comment, the meeting was adjourned.