The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) will invest nearly $1 million in an emergency response fund to help county Children Services agencies struggling with historically large caseloads, caseworker burnout and turnover, and unprecedented challenges caused by the drug epidemic.
An ODJFS news release mirrored what local JFS Director Katie Smith told Highland County commissioners two weeks ago, where she described her office as “overworked and overwhelmed.”
State JFS Director Kimberly Hall said that Gov. Mike DeWine’s current biennial budget made historic investments in Children’s Services, saying it was designed to help Ohio’s communities respond to “this complex combination of challenges.”
“The Emergency Response Fund will allow us to quickly implement additional, targeted strategies to assist county agencies during times of immediate need or crisis,” Hall said, “such as a large-scale staff turnover, child fatality, documented performance concerns, or other emergencies.”
At the Feb. 12 commissioners meeting, Smith described a system in crisis caused by ever increasing costs associated with the rising number of children in foster care, and an overburdened staff of case workers who struggle with an overwhelming case load.
She told commissioners that there were 172 children in custody care as of December 2019, up from 116 just one year ago; placement costs had risen from $2.3 million in 2018 to $3.4 million at the close of last year; and that the number of children with special needs in JFS had increased to four, with each requiring an expenditure of over $400 daily.
State figures showed that on any given day in Ohio, more than 16,000 children are in the custody of a Children Services agency, a 30-percent increase since 2011.
According to the ODJFS news release, the investments in the DeWine budget will fund the creation of a three-person Emergency Response Team, which can quickly respond to county agencies such as Highland County JFS if they find themselves in a crisis situation.
Intensive training and technical assistance will be provided in the short term, the release stated, and to help with long-term needs, the fund may also be used for statewide caseworker recruitment, retention efforts and other capacity challenges that counties may face, such as home study assessments for foster and adoptive parents.
Crisis response efforts aside, Smith was adamant in her feeling that much of the problem stems from the need of preventative services, which she said are non-existent in Highland County.
“We should have preventative services in place since right now, all we’re doing is putting out fires,” she said. “We should be able to provide our families in the county with prevention, and what we’re doing is just responding to the crisis.”
DeWine has prioritized children touched by the foster care system with targeted investments, the release said, issuing an executive order that elevated foster care priorities in Ohio, combined with the creation of a Children Services Transformation Advisory Council.
Earlier in February, the council released its initial findings report, summarizing feedback received during 10 regional foster care forums held across the state.
The council will issue its final recommendations to DeWine later this summer.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.