Child safety continued to be the focus of the Cuyahoga County Health, Human Service and Aging Committee’s May 23 meeting. It was the second meeting in a row where the issue was discussed, at the May 16 meeting, the Cuyahoga County Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) provided a general overview of the processes and procedures they use to investigate allegations of abuse, and outlined what determines the next steps in those cases. This most recent meeting featured presentations from the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court, as well as the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. Cuyahoga County Council President Dan Brady attended both meetings. Committee Chairwoman Yvonne Conwell also alluded to legislation related to strengthening child safety that will be introduced at a future meeting.
…the decision to remove a child from custody is ultimately done by court order. The intent of the hearings is to better understand the role that county policies play in reaching that decision.
The meeting opened with public testimony from a young mother whose daughter is currently in the custody of DCFS. At the conclusion of the testimony, Conwell explained that the County Executive Armond Budish is working on an ordinance that would create a panel where individuals would be able to provide testimony about specific cases. Conwell suggested this would be a more suitable platform than public comment at Council meetings where the focus is on overall communication between agencies.
As the committee moved to the agenda, Conwell once again reminded the audience that the decision to remove a child from custody is ultimately done by court order. The intent of the hearings is to better understand the role that county policies play in reaching that decision.About 1/5 of cases reported to Cuyahoga Co. DCFS found at least one child was physically abused - that was nearly 1,000 cases in 2017 Click To Tweet
The first presentation was from Tammy Wagner from DCFS, who provided some follow up information from the previous hearing. The committee had asked about how many referrals are made, and of those referrals, how many are substantiated. According to Wagner, 5,177 referrals alleging physical abuse were made to the county in 2017. Of those, 983 were substantiated, meaning at least one child had encountered physical abuse. The next county official to present was Jacqueline McCrae, deputy director of DCFS. In the last HHSA meeting, she was asked to provide additional information about the costs of paid kinship care, a program that allows for children who in county custody and who are separated from their birth parents, to live with relatives or close family friends. “Currently, kinship caregivers are unpaid, unless they are licensed foster caregivers,” she said. She testified that if kinship caregivers were paid at the same amount of current foster caregivers, it would cost the county $5.9 million. Finally, DCFS Director Cynthia Weiskittel presented information requested by the council about the average length of employment for Child Protection Specialists. In the past two years, there have been 109 DCFS employees who resigned, with a length of service median of 2.43 years, and an average of 7.20 years.
“Currently, kinship caregivers are unpaid, unless they are licensed foster caregivers,” said the DCFS deputy director. She testified that if kinship caregivers were paid at the same amount of current foster caregivers, it would cost the county $5.9 million.
Michelle Myers, Supervising Attorney in the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office for DCFS, then addressed the committee. DCFS approaches the county prosecutor’s office if it decides it needs court intervention. These prosecutors assist with filings, motions, orders, etc. The prosecutors are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so that if something happens in the middle of the night, prosecutors can assist and support DCFS staff to move quickly to keep the child safe. On occasion, the county agency may want to pursue a next step, however, the prosecutor’s office may not think that is the best next legal step. In those instances, there is a protocol where representatives from the upper levels of management of both DCFS and the prosecutor’s office come together to find an agreeable next step. Myers then went on to explain the difference in classification of court filings, between emergency (immediate removal) and non-emergency (court-ordered supervision, but the child remains in the home). Once the filing is made with the court, it is the court who considers the evidence presented and makes a decision.
Due to the opioid epidemic, there has been a more than 140 percent increase in child cases over the past four years.
The next presenter was Judge Kristen Sweeney, administrative judge for Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court, who provided an overview of the court’s role in the decision making process. She explained that the judicial system is traditionally hesitant to get involved in family matters, and that the legal system approaches decisions based, not necessarily on what the child wishes, but what is believed to be in the “best interest” of the child. This involves the constitutional protections of parental rights, who are presumed to be acting in the best interests of their child. Removing a child from his or her parents is seen as a last resort. The judge then explained the politically-charged nature of the environment around laws that govern parental rights and protecting the welfare of children. She also said due to the opioid epidemic, there has been a more than 140 percent increase in child cases over the past four years. Sweeney concluded her remarks by describing two new programs that have been developed to shorten the stay of children who are placed in foster care, by engaging the child’s biological parents in social services to assist them in getting back on their feet and reunited with their children. Another program is a pilot program called the Parent Representation Project, which has a goal of improving the legal representation of parents whose children have been placed in foster care. The court will assist in the training of attorneys, so that they’ll be better equipped to handle child welfare cases and hopefully shorten the stay of children in foster care.
Conwell was curious about the start date of the pilot program, and Sweeney said that those efforts are currently underway. The funding for that pilot came from the Ohio Supreme Court. Following up on the judge’s comments about how much weight the word of the child has in legal proceedings, Councilman Michael Houser asked if there are any training underway for the courts to work with the kids to communicate their interests. Sweeney replied that the court has continuing education for attorneys and staff members so that they are keenly aware of how much legal impact the word of a child has on legal proceedings.
Councilwoman Shontel Brown asked a question about a “telephonic order,” where an emergency removal of a child who is unsafe can be made ex parte (meaning parents may not be physically be present). When those decisions are made, and the child is immediately removed, an in-person hearing, with the parents present, can be scheduled the next day. Brown later asked about the frequency of meetings where team decisions are made about the well-being a child. Myers said that emergency meetings can be put together in 5-10 minutes, and non-emergency meetings are usually held once per week.
Houser next shared a story of a local school teacher who called 696-KIDS for a child who had a burn mark. Weiskittel explained that teachers are mandated reporters. Each call is given a case number and each phone call is recorded. Weiskittel said that she would be happy to follow up with him on that specific case outside of the HHSA meeting.
There were several public comments at the end of the meeting, including comments not just about the importance of ensuring child safety in parental homes, but also about the importance of having safeguards in place to ensure children’s safety in foster care homes as well. Additionally, comments were made about the importance and regularity of team-decision meetings, and for parents to be kept constantly in the loop when those decisions are made.
After short comments about the importance of advocacy about state laws on child welfare from Conwell, the meeting was adjourned.