Children services responding to ‘incredible’ abusesWritten by Joel Sensenig | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first in a series of stories about Lucas County Children Services running prior to the Nov. 8 election.
Lucas County Children Services (LCCS) is tasked with the responsibility of seeing that the youngest, most vulnerable members of the community are able to grow up in a safe environment.
Safe, although not always ideal.
“We’re not necessarily concerned with lifestyles, parents who are bad housekeepers,” said Dean Sparks, executive director of LCCS. “We’re don’t care about clutter. What we care about is safety — children who are beaten, not being fed, with no supervision or medical care, or victims of sexual abuse.”
LCCS is asking voters to approve a 1.4 mill renewal levy Nov. 8, expected to generate annual revenue of $10.4 million. Along with a 1.0 mill levy expiring in 2013, the tax measures account for almost half of the agency’s $41.4 million operating budget. Most of the rest ($17.8 million) comes from federal funding, while $2.8 million is generated from the state. The agency’s two levies are used for operating expenses, including staff salaries, child protective services (foster care costs, kinship support), service contracts (mentoring, tutoring, counseling) and matching money for federal reimbursements.
In 2010, LCCS had expenses of about $42.4 million, with nearly $25.2 million of that going toward salaries and expenses. Placement costs made up the next largest expense (about $9.6 million).
Staying busy is not an issue at LCCS. Last year, the agency received 6,500 children referrals, or cases the staff of 370 employees investigated. Many of the cases didn’t fall under the responsibility of what LCCS is assigned to do. At any one time, about 1,700 children are on the agency’s active list, meaning they receive assistance from LCCS.
Sparks has been with the agency for 14 years.
“Children services represents this community’s concern of children not being cared for properly,” he said, acknowledging that some public perceptions of the agency tend to fixate on decades-old behavior. “We used to take children from their parents and put them in the orphanage. We learned that’s not a good way of handling things.”
The current way of handling the safety of the county’s children involves taking action on more than 20,000 calls each year about potential cases of abuse or neglect. The agency receives and assesses these calls, determines what (if any) action is needed, works with the families to ensure children are in safe environments and strives to ensure parents and children both have the resources necessary to give the children an upbringing free of neglect and abuse.
“It’s our responsibility to determine whether (each situation) warrants child abuse and if the child is in danger,” Sparks said.
LCCS is constantly walking the sometimes fine line between being law enforcement and doing whatever is necessary to keep children free from harm.
“Once we get a call, we do a record check and make a home visit for an inspection. We don’t go randomly knock on doors. We’re not a law enforcement agency. Our job is to take care of the child. The police take care of the perpetrator.”
From his quiet office overlooking the county courthouse on Adams Street, Sparks realizes his agency’s mission may seem uncomplicated, perhaps even routine, as he speaks about it. Going out in the community and into the homes of the children LCCS serves paints a different picture of substance abuse, domestic violence, emotional and mental abuse and sexual assaults.
“Some of the things we see happen to kids is pretty incredible,” he said.
Seventy-five percent of the youth LCCS oversees are younger than 12 years of age; 50 percent are younger than 5. Most of them are from a few ZIP codes in inner-city Toledo. The neighborhoods are the same ones where other problems — substance abuse, unemployment — run rampant.
“The only other professionals going into these neighborhoods are law enforcement,” Sparks said.
The youth served by LCCS are disproportionately African-American. In a city with less than 20 percent black population, about 40 percent of the children under the agency’s watch are black.
“That is not unique to Toledo, however,” Sparks said.
Where there is child abuse, Sparks said there are most likely two other problems as well: substance abuse and domestic violence. In the most severe cases, LCCS staff can get the wheels quickly turning to remove a child from the home.
“Children can be removed by police in an emergency,” he said. “Or we can petition the court to remove the child. We do not have the authority to remove anyone from anywhere. The only authority comes from the juvenile court.”
If a situation calls for removal, LCCS tries to find a relative the child can stay with. If there is no suitable family available, the children go into foster homes. About 550 childen are currently in 300 foster homes in Lucas County. At its highest, 1,100 children were in foster homes, Sparks said.
The agency tries to keep siblings together in foster homes. Sometimes it doesn’t happen.
“I’ve had kids say to me, ‘I understand why you took me away from my mother, but I never understood why you took me away from my sibling,’” Sparks said.
The children stay in foster homes for a few days to years, with the average stay lasting about 13 months. In the meantime, LCCS and other agencies work with parents to get them ready to have the children move back in with them.
“If we can’t get the children back in their homes within a year, we can ask the court to terminate parental rights,” Sparks said. “The stakes are very high. They must get clean quickly or risk losing their kids forever. Of course, getting clean can take a long time.”
Even when the parents are not suitable guardians, LCCS makes a concerted effort to get children into permanent homes.
“We really make the effort to find homes for kids,” said Julie Malkin, public information officer for LCCS. “Most of them who are adopted are adopted from their foster families, because they really do become part of their families.”
Sparks called it a myth that children services lets kids loose once they turn 18, although legal adults are free to leave the agency at that point if they wish. Recently, the agency has had several stories of success where youth have gone on to higher education at University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University and Owens Community College.
To help these future parents avoid the mistakes they were subjected to growing up, LCCS attempts to prepare them for future success.
“We teach budgeting, how to cook and clean and bank — all of that,” Malkin said.