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The Church: Making a Difference in Butler County

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This past weekend, an article ran in our local paper regarding the results of the reorganization efforts of Butler County’s Children Services.  The committed personnel and dedicated social workers are working hard to mitigate the difficult circumstances that confront many children in our county.  Of course, these are they that diligently give of themselves everyday and are clearly doing the lion share of the work.  However, I am also grateful for the opportunities that the faith community have been given to invest in the lives of children who are at risk.

Over the last year much has been accomplished by many compassionate churches.   We have seen a youth camp (LIFT Ministries) donate over $4000 to provide suitcases for children being displaced instead of using a garbage bag to carry their belongings.  In conjunction with the camp efforts, Cedarville University pledged a full ride scholarship (totaling over $200,000) every year to a qualifying student that times out of the foster care system.  An event entitled, “Summer Slam” was a 3 day event that took foster children skating, bowling and provided a magic show.  During this same event the children were able to visit Rethreads (our cities free clothing store) and participate in a service project.  During the holidays, the church provided meals for Thanksgiving and gifts for Christmas.  Multiple informational meetings have been held and foster care recruitment initiatives are under way.

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In addition to these events, I have been able to introduce Jerome Kearns (the director of Family Services) and his staff to many pastors in our community.  We have met together to establish an open dialogue, communicate the needs and identify a path in which we can partner together.  Specifically, this open dialogue has raised up many who are willing to be foster parents and are taking the next steps in becoming licensed to do so.  Although, there is still much to be accomplished, there have been a lot of significant investments made that are helping to make the difference.

I am grateful for the opportunity and I am looking forward to the continued impact that the faith community can have in our county.  Below is the published article in its entirety that was published in Saturday’s paper.  May this be a welcomed reminder that together we can make a difference.

Children Services revamp getting results

 By Denise G. Callahan

Staff Writer

BUTLER COUNTY —

The number of child abuse, neglect and dependency cases showing up in Butler County courtrooms has dropped 33 percent in the past year, a sign that the complete overhaul of the county Children Services agency is bearing fruit, officials say.

Butler County Children Services embarked on a revamp of the agency a year ago and has faced its share of challenges since then. A three-week social worker strike, a $4 million budget deficit and a high turnover rate among its staff were all hurdles Children Services had to scale in 2014.

But despite those hiccups, the agency still managed to reduce the number of abuse, neglect and dependency cases in Butler County Juvenile Court between 2013 and 2014 by a third. And the number of cases dropped 76 percent in both the months of November and December, according to court records.

Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser said the agency has expanded the use of its “alternative response” plan, which has contributed to the positive reduction in the number of cases going to court. And fewer cases has translated into fewer tax dollars spent, he said.

“There is less need to monitor through the court system, which takes a load off the judges and the cases they have to handle,” Gmoser said. “So far, we are cautiously optimistic that the program is doing its job and the numbers seem to prove it.”

There were several goals of the Children Services reorganization, chief among them was to preserve families and shorten the time children are separated from their parents. The agency has front-loaded services, using what they call “alternative response” where appropriate, to avoid removing children from their homes.

“We are applying Ohio law to the decisions that we’re making, and we are only removing in those situations where there is an active safety threat that is mitigated by the removal,” Executive Director Jerome Kearns said. “In an Alternative Response situation involving the family, our staff are developing relationships with them and trying to identify the concerns that are happening in the family and helping them find solutions to those and connecting them with community-based resources.”

Kearns said previously only one unit was trained and permitted to use this method, but now it is being used agency wide. The expanded use of the AR program is likely evidenced by the 76 percent drop in court cases at the end of last year, but it isn’t the only factor. External influences can also filter into the decision to remove a child, such as a case gone wrong. After Shawn and Joanna Blackston of Middletown locked their 12-year-old daughter in the basement, and case workers apparently didn’t see any red flags in 2012, court cases spiked with 343 in the first six months of 2013 compared to 228 over the same period last year.

“There’s a lot of public interest in what we do, so we might find ourselves defining safety differently from time to time in making our decisions,” Kearns said. “Because it is open up for interpretation.”

Kearns said the work flow change that came with reorganization — caseworkers keeping cases longer and digging deeper into family needs at the outset — has also had an impact on the numbers.

Union President Becky Palmer said she hopes the alternative response program is the cause of the case number drop.

“The union remains hopeful that the AR expansion accomplishes the goals that the administration has put forward. We continue to cooperate in meeting these goals,” she said. “As a union we will reserve our judgment as to its overall impact until such time we see data that supports the intended outcome. There are many factors and changes that may have impacted the reduced number of filings in court.”

What Kearns does not attribute to lower case filings is the turnover rate at the agency. In 2014 the agency had a 29 percent turnover rate with 45 departing employees. And almost every week this year the county commissioners are accepting the resignations of more Children Services workers. He said they plan to hire 11 workers shortly.

“Obviously it concerns us to have a number of vacancies, but we are doing everything we need to do to fill those,” he said. “I don’t believe there is a correlation between the vacancies and the number of filings.”

Another goal of the reorganization was to forge a relationship with faith-based organizations in the county. Last February, Kearns and his management team met with a group of about 10 pastors and faith-based organizations. The response from religious leaders was exuberant.

Les Jones, of Rolling Hills Baptist Church, said his church already has programs in place that the agency could tap into.

“We’re already doing a lot of what you’re doing. We’re not doing it together, that’s the huge thing here,” Jones said during the February 2014 meeting. “I would much rather us be involved early on in the process and helping those parents learn how to be better parents, than picking up the pieces with you all on the back end, trying to find an emergency home.”

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter, who has met with several pastors during the past year and as recently as a couple weeks ago, said faith leaders are “reiterating their desire to help in a way that’s meaningful.” However, she said there a things like privacy issues to consider so they need to proceed carefully.

“There were never defined rules for the faith-based community. There are very specific rules for the certification of foster parents,” she said. “We are very pleased to have their support, and I think we are going to be able to provide specific paths for them to take, where they can take action to benefit the foster care children.”

Pastor Rob Rosenbalm at the Fairfield West Baptist Church said he has had many meetings with Carpenter, Kearns and his staff and other church leaders over the past year. His church and others have held events for foster kids and their families, they arranged a suitcase event — kids taken from their homes usually pack belongings in trash bags — last summer and have offered other support.

He said they understand there have to be ground rules.

“When it comes to feeding meals or giving resources, we give with no strings,” he said. “We have no expectations, it’s just about here, let’s help to mobilize a compassionate congregation to do something.”

One of the main goals of the church partnership was to help recruit more local foster families. Carpenter said one of the pastors she met with recently is actually in foster care training right now, as are six other new families. The number of children in the agency’s custody has dropped to 421 from a high of almost 500.

County Administrator Charlie Young said he is pleased with the progress the agency is making.

“What I’m seeing is a tremendous effort in adopting the changes they’ve been asked to adopt. We are seeing the results of that from juvenile court, and we’ll see the results of this in other ways as time progresses,” Young said. “We are taking fewer kids into our custody because of the focus that we’ve taken on not only keeping families together but of wrapping services around those families.”