Agency marks Child Abuse Prevention Month with several eventsWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Lucas County Children Services (LCCS) has a reputation as “bad guys” and “baby snatchers,” but nothing could be farther from the truth, said the agency’s executive director Dean Sparks.
“Many in the community look at us almost as quasi-law enforcement. They expect us to go out in our vans, take kids away and then tell parents what they need to do to get them back, and if they don’t do it quickly enough they will never get them back,” Sparks said. “I’ve heard people say we get money from the federal government for every child we bring into our care. Not true. We don’t get any rewards for removing kids. Our No. 1 priority is keeping kids safe and helping parents take better care of their children.”
LCCS does not actually have the authority to remove a child from a home; only a law enforcement officer, magistrate or judge can do that, Sparks said.
Removing a child is also LCCS’s last resort. Whenever possible, children remain with their families or a relative while steps are taken to improve conditions.
“Less than 10 percent of kids we come in contact with are going to get removed,” Sparks said.
In 2011, LCCS received 4,148 referrals of suspected child abuse involving 6,046 children and discovered 587 area children were abused or neglected. Forty-nine percent of the investigations were for physical abuse, 36 percent for neglect, 14 percent for sexual abuse and 1 percent for emotional abuse.
Thirty-two percent of children served stayed in their own homes, 31 percent lived with a relative, 32 percent were placed in foster care and 5 percent went to a group home or private institution.
When responding to an allegation of abuse or neglect, caseworkers immediately do a safety assessment to make sure the child or children are safe. The assessment includes checking the home environment, evaluating caretakers, making sure basic needs are being met, checking if utilities are turned on and medical and educational needs are being met. Caseworkers also look for signs of physical hazards, substance abuse, violence and sexual abuse.
If any concerns are found, a meeting between the agency and the family is called to discuss the issues and give the family an opportunity to offer solutions before recommendations are made.
Over the past several years, LCCS has been transitioning to a response method called “differential response,” meaning that except in cases of sexual or serious physical abuse, the agency no longer identifies a perpetrator and a victim. Instead, LCCS engages the family in a discussion of concerns and works with them to find a suitable solution.
“For more than 76 percent of cases, we’re going through a kinder and gentler way of engaging families,” Sparks said. “Rather than substantiate whether or not an incident occurred, we want to look at the whole family and how it’s functioning, identify where the problems and difficulties are and come up with a plan to solve them, empowering the family to make changes. We don’t want to just go in and say, ‘This is what you have to do,’ which is what we did for many years.”
The meetings, which are typically held at the LCCS offices in Downtown Toledo where security is present if needed, range from civil to heated, said caseworker Shannon Keefer.
“You’re talking about the possibility of children being removed from parents, so you can’t deny it’s tense for every person sitting at the table,” Keefer said. “It’s very intense. Feelings and emotions are sky high, but you have to keep that under wraps. The bottom line is this is a very traumatic situation for all involved, especially the children. We have to do our best to keep that meeting decent and civilized in trying to keep those lines of communication open and being honest with each other about what’s going on.”
Some parents know they are overwhelmed and are actually grateful for the help, Sparks said.
“We do occasionally get people turning tables over, threatening, storming out, kicking doors and breaking them. They are not happy with us,” Sparks said. “But you’d be surprised how many parents say, ‘Yeah, I can’t handle this right now. I need help.’”
Keefer said one mother hugged her in court after a judge ordered her children removed from her care.
“The mom hugged me afterward and said, ‘Thanks,’” Keefer said. “I didn’t know what to do at that point. It shocked me.”
Another agency imitative, which Keefer has been working on since July, is developing community programs such as the Parent Partnership Program.
“We partner with parents who have previously been through our system and are today doing well and are successful in their lives. Some have gotten their children back into their care, some have not, but they want to come back and volunteer and give back to parents currently going through system,” Keefer said. “It’s very powerful. I’ve learned so much from the parent partners, opening my eyes to what they’ve been through and what that’s really like on their end. I know I’m going to continue to look to them for advice and guidance about what we’re doing with the program and where it can and should go.”
One of the parent volunteers is Tim. About five years ago, when his two young sons were removed from his ex-wife’s care because of unsafe conditions at her home, he assumed he would be given custody.
Instead, the Toledo man, whose last name is omitted to protect the identity of his children, was told his history of domestic violence against his ex-wife was a safety concern and the boys were sent to live with relatives.
“I was upset and angry because I had always thought of myself as a good dad,” Tim said. “I had already raised three older children [from a previous marriage] and I thought my children should be home with me.
“I never believed I was guilty of domestic violence because I never put my hands on my ex-wife and I never hurt my children. I thought, ‘They eat every day, they’re clothed, they have a roof over their heads, they’re OK.’ But until I started going through some of the agency programs they requested I go to, I never saw the mental abuse my children went through on a daily basis.
“I used to raise my voice and holler and scream a lot, or block the door when someone wanted to leave because I still had something to say, which not only caused my wife to be afraid, it caused my children to be afraid. I always thought I was doing the right thing because after everybody calmed down, I would ask my kids, ‘Hey, you love me?’ Well, what else were they going to say? Of course they’re going to tell me they loved me.
“Going through the batterers intervention program, I realized there was a whole lot more to domestic violence, that I didn’t have to physically attack someone to be guilty and that I did in fact need the program. No one wants to admit as a parent they need to make some changes in their child’s life, in their own life, but to me that was the first step of healing.”
Tim, who also went to counseling and enrolled in parenting classes, was eventually awarded full custody of his sons. Today, he is a parent volunteer, helping to facilitate the agency’s six-week Building a Better Future workshop for parents who have had children removed from their home.
“Knowing they are still going through services, it’s a reward to be able to pull the parents aside and say, ‘I’ve been there, done that and this will help you out,’” Tim said. “If I can stop one other family from going through the turmoil I’ve been through and help them navigate through the system, I’m happy. I tell them the quicker you successfully complete these services being asked of you, the quicker you’re going to have your prize back, which is your children back in your home with you.”
Even though it’s easier to blame others, part of the healing process is learning to take responsibility for your actions, Tim said.
“I was probably one of the biggest, hardest knuckleheads out there. I didn’t think I needed these programs. I think the biggest thing for me to conquer was admitting it was a problem and claiming ownership of it,” Tim said. “I’d like all parents to claim responsibility that something happened in their life to cause [LCCS] to come out and remove their children. They don’t just go through a directory and say, ‘OK, let’s go take their kids.’ Whether it’s their fault or someone else’s fault, something happened to cause the agency to go out there in the first place.”
The agency’s hotline for reporting child abuse receives about 750 calls per month and 300 to 400 are investigated. Fifty-six percent of referrals come from “mandated reporters” within the community with the remainder coming from private or anonymous sources.
Tim said his past is always there as a reminder, but he prefers to focus on the future.
“My drive and the reason I do these programs is to remind myself of where I was at and where I want to be at,” Tim said. “I try not to dwell on the past things. They are always there as a reminder, but I just try to look toward the future and where my life’s going with my children now. They’re both doing great now and I’m doing great now. I can tell you today the agency will never have a reason to come out to my house or to tell me as a father I can’t have my children at home.”
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Upcoming events include:.
- “Wear Blue to Work Day” on April 11. “Each individual person makes the decision that morning to put on a blue shirt, but think about all the blue shirts together,” said LCCS Public Information Officer Julie Malkin. “If he wears a blue shirt, and she wears a blue shirt and I wear a blue shirt, we’re unified as a community against child abuse.” Area residents are also encouraged photograph a group of co-workers wearing the color and post it via social media.
- LCCS and other agencies will present information at the “We Care About Our Kids: Community Forum on Child Sexual Abuse” at 6:30 p.m. April 18 at the University of Toledo Scott Park Campus. Admission is free.
- A ceremony honoring local children who died as a result of street violence, abuse or neglect is 11:30 a.m. April 25 at the LCCS offices, 705 Adams St., Toledo. Since April 2011, no children have died in Lucas County from abuse or neglect, but Timothy Blair, 14, Deadrick Rocker, 17, and Montelle Taylor, 17, died as a result of violence. Lucas County has not had an abuse- or neglect-related death for about two years, Sparks said. Nationally, about five children a day and 1,700 per year die from abuse and neglect.
“Child abuse is preventable,” Sparks said. “If we work together we can stop it.”
To report a case of suspected abuse, call (419) 213-CARE. For more information, visit www.co.lucas.oh.us/LCCS.
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