JFS Asks for System-wide Investigation

Losing a child we’ve been involved with is always heartbreaking. We grow close to these children and take these tragedies personally. Our condolences go out to all who were close to DeMarcus Jackson.

We have asked for an independent system-wide investigation into the case. We just issued the following press release.

Cincinnati (Oct. 26, 2011) Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann and Job and Family Services Director Moira Weir on Wednesday ordered an independent ombudsman to conduct a review of the case that resulted in DeMarcus Jackson returning to his biological family.

 

The two have asked Ross Evans, a Cincinnati attorney appointed by the county in 2007 as an ombudsman, to examine the case records and identify any system issues that need corrected.

 

“The Job and Family Services Department conducts its own investigation whenever it is involved with a child who is seriously injured or dies,” Hartmann said. “But this warrants an independent review of everyone involved in the placement process to examine the decisions that were made and determine if different actions should have been taken. We owe this to DeMarcus.”

 

Hartmann said the review would take place after the investigation being performed by the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office so as to not interfere with that work.

The decision to remove an abused or neglected child from a home is made through a Juvenile Court hearing by a magistrate with input from several parties, including a JFS worker, court advocate for the children, the parents, attorneys for the parents and others. This follows a safety assessment of:

 

  • The presence of active safety threats or present danger
  • The vulnerability of the child
  • The protective capacities of the parent, guardian/custodian or caretaker
  • The family’s history of child abuse and/or neglect resulting in serious harm

 When an abused or neglected child is removed from a home, federal law requires the agencies involved in the child welfare system to meet a legal standard and make reasonable efforts to reunite the child with his or her biological family. The court must always balance the parents’ right to parent versus the best interests and safety of the child.

 The steps for reunification include:

A plan is devised by all concerned parties – JFS, the child’s court advocate, the parents, their attorneys and others — and approved by a Juvenile Court magistrate detailing what the parents must do for a safe reunification.

 

  • The parents are required to take part in intensive services such as drug and alcohol assessments and rehabilitation, mental health counseling, parenting classes, domestic violence counseling, etc. These services are provided by private agencies in the Hamilton County community.

 

  • The parents’ progress is overseen by a JFS caseworker and court advocate and reported to the Juvenile Court magistrate in regular court hearings.  At each court hearing the progress is reviewed and new court orders occur, amending the plan and requirements of the family.

 

  • With positive progress, families will move from supervised visits with their children to unsupervised visits to extended visits. In each instance, a report is made to the court on the results of the visit.

 

  • A final court hearing involving the parents, JFS worker, court advocate and others is held before a magistrate, who makes the final decision on reunification. If a decision is made that a child cannot be safely reunified, other options are considered for that child.

 

Weir said each of these steps occurred in the case of DeMarcus.

 “Reports on the family’s progress were all positive and everyone was in agreement on reunification,” Weir said. “Because of the serious nature of this incident, I feel it is best to have someone look into whether, based on the information available, the right decisions were made. We look forward to working with the independent reviewer.”

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Working to Earn — and Keep — Your Trust

When I was appointed director in 2007, I made a point of telling this community our agency would be more accessible, accountable and transparent. My goal was to gain your trust.

I realized early on we alone could not solve this community’s problems. We needed the support of everyone in the social services community, business community, government community and others to tackle tough problems such as poverty and child abuse. I knew we could not become the center of that community-wide effort if we did not have your trust.

I think we have made progress. Our partners in the social service community have worked hand-in-hand with us through trying times, when the economy has greatly increased the number of people walking through our doors while, at the same time, stark budget realities have led us to reduce staff and contracts. Our business community has aided us in foster care recruitment, workforce development and other critical areas. Local government leaders have supported us through tough times and helped us launch creative programs, such as the Higher Education Mentoring Initiative and the Crossover Youth Project.

But I realize trust is a fragile thing. I never take it for granted. 

Last week, our agency made the news for the wrong reasons with criminal indictments against former employees. The justice system will work that out.

But I want to again confirm this agency remains committed to being accessible, accountable and transparent. Even in this situation, we discovered the alleged misconduct and brought it to the attention of authorities for a full investigation.

We are unhappy and disappointed that any employee of JFS would be suspected of improperly using or dispersing government assistance intended for the neediest in our community. Especially at a time when so many are seeking help from the agency.

These actions did not result in anyone from the community being denied benefits. Cases are approved based on the applicant meeting eligibility requirements and these actions did not limit the amount of assistance available to the public.

JFS undergoes regular audits and has received recognition for its efforts in the administration of public assistance programs. The agency was recently awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its work on food stamp accuracy.

The overwhelming majority of JFS employees are hard working, honest members of society. The agency has nearly 800 employees who help protect children and the elderly, collect child support and provide financial, food and medical assistance to this community.

As I said, trust is a fragile thing. As the leader and public face of the Department of Job and Family Services, I take our relationships with this community extremely seriously and I pledge that our agency, as a whole, will continue to operate honestly and ethically. We plan to remain at the center of the efforts to improve the lives of Hamilton County’s citizens and we will continue to build strong partnerships throughout our community that will help us achieve that goal.

I hope you will not lose faith in us.

Non-Emergency Transportation Scheduling Change

A small but important item:

Beginning Nov. 1, the Non-Emergency Transportation Services unit will schedule transportation appointments for Medicaid customers only between the hours of 8 a.m. and noon. This change will not affect service delivery.

We are only asking that, if a customer must schedule an appointment, they call between those hours. Thanks for your cooperation.

Helping Families to a Better Tomorrow

Our agency is working with the state of Ohio on several initiatives that will ultimately improve the rate of Ohio Works First recipients who are involved in work activities.

Federal mandates require at least 50 percent of families involved in the program have an adult involved in work activities. Ohio’s rate stands at about 30%, making it susceptible to financial penalties.

Hamilton County leads all metropolitan Ohio counties in work-participation rates. As recently as May, the county’s rate hit 48%. During that month, the next highest metropolitan county was Lucas, with a 34% rate. Hamilton County ranks 17th in the state of Ohio, but all of the higher-ranking counties have much smaller caseloads. Their caseload sizes range from 13 families to 244 families. Hamilton County’s May numbers are based on nearly 4,000 families.

Obviously, this is still below the 50% rate. We will work closely with the state to improve our rate, as we require support from state data systems, assistance with timely state hearings and changes in policies and procedures to assist with this effort.

So far, the state has promised to launch a separate Ohio Works program that provides an extra $10 in food benefits to OWF families that are working. This incentive may boost participation rates. The state is also working with counties to change policy so assignment of work activities can occur before benefits are approved and sanction rules will be strengthened. We also look forward to a new web-based tracking system for caseworkers and an online job search and readiness tool for OWF participants. The state has also promised to launch a statewide information campaign around the topic.

Hamilton County long ago began an intense focus on improving work-participation rates. Hamilton County’s improvements have put it in a position where the state holds it out as an example to others. Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services and the Ohio Job and Family Services Director’s Association often ask the county to do training on the subject and work with other individual counties. Additionally, Hamilton County recently led a Southwest Ohio District Summit on the topic and shared its strategies and brain-stormed additional strategies to be utilized within the district.

Helping people today so they have a better tomorrow is the mission here at JFS. I am confident this is a challenge we will not only conquer, but one where our efforts will continue to be recognized as best practice for all counties.