In recent weeks, the Highland County Commissioners have been increasingly struggling with how to pay for a surge in the number of children being displaced from their homes and needing foster care.
The lack of enough local foster homes, coupled with a dramatic increase in the number of children requiring such care, has wreaked havoc with the county budget, since housing children outside the county and as far away as Toledo increases the costs associated with foster care.
In an ironic twist, a focused crackdown on drug abuse by local law enforcement – a focus applauded by nearly everyone – has led to the unintended consequence of more children who are left homeless.
Commissioner Shane Wilkin said Thursday that for a long time the typical number of Highland County children in foster care was 60 or 70. Today nearly 150 children are in the foster care program.
Wilkin said he supports cracking down on drugs, but when children are removed from homes because parents are going to prison, “Who’s going to care for them?”
He said at an average rate of $50 to $60 per day for each child, a drug abuser with three or four children can cost the county $200 a day, indefinitely. Children who are more difficult to place because they pose risk factors, such as having a history of running away, can cost as much as $395 a day to house, said Wilkin. Wilkin and Children Services officials said children in foster care will likely cost the county more than $2 million in the coming year.
While the numbers have been steadily growing over the past three years, Wilkin said that around July it began to become clear that whatever reserves were on hand to cover the costs would soon be depleted, especially since the number of children in need of care was showing no abatement.
The problem will likely have a negative impact on the commissioners’ ability to spend more on economic development efforts, or increase funding in other areas.
“We can’t leave a child in a dangerous home,” said Wilkin.
The dilemma has the potential of being a budget buster for the county, even after the federal reimbursement of 63 percent of the costs. Wilkin said the current Children Services levy was passed and renewed when the number of foster children was in the 60 or 70 range, not more than twice that many, as is the case now.
And with not enough foster homes available in Highland County, the cost of housing children as far away as Toledo compounds the problem. Caseworkers are required to make regular visits to observe children in their foster environments – at least once a month in most cases, but sometimes twice a month – meaning that a three or four hour drive each way can result in a caseworker spending a whole day just visiting one child.
Debbie Robbins and Katie Adams, the director and deputy director at Highland County Children Services, said the Children Services levy originally passed in 2006 “doesn’t come close” to covering the costs associated with foster care today.
Highland County currently has just 12 licensed foster homes, said Adams, although more are being certified. But the number of foster homes here is low compared to most surrounding counties.
Part of the reason is that Highland County pays less than Clinton and Clermont counties. There are foster parents in Highland County who only take children from counties that pay more than Highland, said Adams. The average number of children in each home ranges from two to five, said Adams.
She said anyone who is willing to care for a child or children can be a foster parent if they meet the requirements. There is no requirement that foster parents be married couples. Foster parents can be single, and they can request an age range of children they are willing to care for.
“Just the willingness to care for a child,” said Adams in citing the main requirement.
If enough new potential foster parents step forward, a training center official from Loveland will come to Highland County to provide training, rather than candidates traveling for the training program, said Adams.
Robbins and Adams said their agency is working on a recruitment program that includes more advertising and more community outreach, such as speaking to churches.
“We’re a very religious county,” said Adams. “We want to task that population.”
Adams said the average length of placement for a child is between three months and two years. The goal is always to return children to their parents, said Adams.
Adams said Children Services does not remove children from their homes. She said that only police or the courts can remove children from homes.
But Kevin Greer, the Highland County probate and juvenile judge, said Children Services has to file a formal complaint with his court “under oath” to have children placed in their care.
Greer provided statistics on abuse, neglect and dependency cases back to 1996. The year-by-year statistics show cases in the 50 to 60 range, with occasional jumps into the 90-plus range. There was an unexplained drop to just 27 cases in 2010, then 73 in 2011, 93 in 2012, 121 in 2013, 122 in 2014 and 128 so far this year.
Greer said there are undoubtedly more drug-related child placement cases.
“No question, the vast majority are heroin, and some meth,” said Greer. But he said, “This stuff is pretty cyclical.” He said he has heard five cases just this week, and the problem involves “real bad parenting.”
Greer said he doesn’t hear many excuses from parents hooked on drugs. “They’re pretty open and honest. They want to get their kids back.” But fewer than half probably achieve that goal, he said.
Greer said Children Services can also pursue a “voluntary safety plan” to place children with relatives rather than in foster care. He said he handles private custody cases where children are placed with family members, and which account for another 150 cases a year beyond the foster placement cases.
Anneka Collins, the Highland County prosecutor, said the increase in drug-addicted parents accounts for virtually the entire rise in the number of children needing foster care services.
“There are a lot more drug cases with parents who can’t kick their addiction,” said Collins. She said that in addition to police and sheriff department arrests, the county has been receiving a noticeable increase in mandated reporting from hospitals, schools and other places when medical professionals and educators suspect children are living in drug-related environments.
“They’re seeing a lot more cases,” she said, citing heroin as the main culprit in recent months. “The kids do without so the parents can feed their habit.”
Collins supports mandatory drug testing for anyone applying for welfare benefits. She said the argument that denying welfare from parents will end up hurting children is not a valid complaint, because the children are already doing without while parents spend their resources on drugs.
Children Services is working to create a website where interested foster parents can read the qualifications and make an initial contact. For now, those interested in becoming foster parents can call 937-393-3111, extension 5055 to contact foster coordinator Jodi Kidder.
“It’s heartbreaking for everyone involved,” said Adams.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.