Describing 2019 as “an incredibly difficult year” for her office, Highland County Job & Family Services Director Katie Smith gave the Highland County Commissioners a status report Wednesday morning, painting a picture of a system in crisis caused by spiraling costs associated with the rising number of children in foster care, and an overburdened yet dedicated staff of case workers who despite the workload, were getting the job done.
“Sometimes when you’re in the middle of chaos and craziness, you don’t realize just how bad it is,” Smith said. “You don’t need to crunch the numbers, because in reality the numbers aren’t going to help you fix the problem.”
She told commissioners that “the numbers weren’t pretty” including the following:
• 172 children in custody care as of December 2019, up from 116 just one year ago.
• An increase in placement costs from $2.3 million in 2018, to $3.4 million at the close of last year.
• The number of special needs children in JFS increased to four, each requiring an expenditure of more than $400 per day.
“The needs of the children we’re seeing is increasing due to the trauma they are experiencing at home,” Smith said. “In some cases it is leading to that need for specialized care, and I truly believe the reason for that high-dollar placement is due to what they’ve gone through at home.”
Figures she provided indicate that 37 percent of the children in JFS care were aged 5 and under; 38 percent were between the ages of 6 and 12, with 25 percent 13 years of age and older.
She said that 28 children were currently awaiting adoption, citing “addiction struggles” as the main reason they can’t be returned to their birth parents.
Where Highland County falls short is in preventative services, which she said just don’t exist.
“We should have preventative services in place since right now, all we’re doing is putting out fires,” Smith said. “We should be able to provide our families in the county with prevention services, and what we’re doing is just responding to the crisis.”
She pointed out that other counties such as Greene, Hamilton and Franklin have preventative services in place, which is lacking in rural counties such as Highland, with another problem being the disproportionate number of children in care, comparing Highland with Greene County.
“Greene County has a population of 161,000 and a total of 111 kids in care,” Smith said. “Here in Highland County, we have a population of around 43,000 and yet we have 172 kids in care.”
Complicating matters, commissioner Terry Britton noted, was the fact that Greene County had 18 caseworkers in place to attend to 111 children, while Highland County with 172 children had a total of six caseworkers — if Smith and her assistant director step in to help with the schedule.
Smith said that while the opiate addiction problem has abated somewhat, her office was still dealing with the problem of addiction, with the substance abuse of choice being methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana.
She credited the DeWine administration for being more proactive on the problem, acknowledging the creation of the Office of Child Welfare Transformation and additional funding.
“I’m excited with where child welfare in the state is headed and that the administration is supportive and understands the issues we’re facing,” Smith said. “But with anything, change takes time.”
In other matters Wednesday, a Leesburg company offered commissioners a pair of proposals for removal of a county-owned barn at the old county farm property on SR 124 east of Hillsboro.
Duncan said that The Barn & Cabin Friend, LLC’s first proposal was the company be allowed to remove the structure and silo, recycle and salvage anything of value, and then dispose of it through burial.
The second proposal was the company would pay the county $1,500, remove anything that was recyclable and then leave it up to the county to finish disposal of the structure.
The commissioners tabled the matter to continue discussions with the company.
A grant for the upgrade of county emergency 9-1-1 services has been applied for, Britton said, and due to the fact some of the costs associated with the grant request would not be paid for, the grant’s spending plan had to be revised.
He said the grant was a 60/40 split, meaning that it would pay for 60 percent of the project costs with the county paying the remainder.
Items such as hardware and training had to be deducted from the grant, Britton said, meaning that Highland County’s portion went from $58,000 to $81,000, in approximate numbers.
“The actual difference is $24,718.70,” he said. “We had budgeted the full amount for the project, so we’re still going to be way ahead of the game.”
Highland County Engineer Chris Fauber solicited bids for new trucks for his office, with Duncan saying that the four F-550 Ford trucks would be leased from Mt. Orab Ford under governmental bids.
Commissioners agreed to proceed with the vehicle acquisition, agreeing to financing through First State Bank, which had the lowest interest rate of the three institutions Fauber considered.
Also, Duncan read a proclamation expressing the commissioners support for the U.S. Constitution’s first 10 amendments, commonly known as the Bill of Rights.
The proclamation was made in response to the commissioners meeting of Jan. 29, when a group of local concerned individuals were in attendance, seeking a resolution from the commissioners in support of the Second Amendment.
In that presentation, spokesman Mark Lucas described his request that commissioners pass a resolution declaring Highland County a sanctuary county for gun rights and ownership as “largely a symbolic gesture.”
The proclamation issued Wednesday stopped short of specifically declaring Highland County a Second Amendment Sanctuary County, as other local and state jurisdictions have done in recent months, but rather focused on the commissioners’ belief that the Bill of Rights in its entirety be “fully preserved, protected and honored.”
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.