ELYRIA — On July 5, when police found seven children living in a filthy house in Lorain, Lorain County Children Services acted quickly — obtaining emergency custody of the children and arranging for family members to care for them.
But as details of Children Services’ involvement with the mother, Erica Perez, came out — that the agency had a long history with her and a caseworker just a few months earlier had noted dismal conditions in the home in a report — the question arose: Why were the children still there?
As it turns out, removing a child from a home — regardless of the condition of the home — is a challenging and lengthy process, according to authorities with knowledge of the system.
Michael Illner, former prosecutor for Lorain County Children Services, said environmental neglect cases are difficult for the agency. He said he has typically advised caseworkers to tread carefully.
“You got to think twice before you take a child out of a dirty house because it’s so easy to clean up, and you’re putting a child through that trauma,” he said.
He added that Children Services’ reputation hinges on successful court cases, but if a parent would not comply with cleaning up his or her home, he would recommend the agency take action.
“When a doctor calls and says the child has a spinal fracture, that’s an easy case,” he said. “When a police officer calls and says the refrigerator’s filthy, that’s a hard case to prove.”
There are other challenges for caseworkers as well, according to Lorain County Domestic Relations/Juvenile Court Judge Debra Boros.
Boros said the courts, as well as child welfare agencies, are bound by Ohio statutes that require agencies to make “reasonable efforts to keep a child in his or her home.”
According to state law, the agency and the courts must also make reasonable efforts to reunite the parent with the child, except if a parent had been convicted of certain violent offenses.
“It’s very difficult and very frustrating,” said David Basinski, Boros’ fellow Domestic Relations/Juvenile judge.
Perez is awaiting trial for seven counts of child endangering and other charges stemming from the July 5 incident in which police were called to deal with an intoxicated Perez screaming at her neighbors on Long Avenue. Police found seven of the pregnant mother’s children covered in filth and living in a home that contained only a single, crib-sized mattress and little food.
Agency records show Children Services had been involved with Perez since at least 2001, and the agency reportedly has received numerous referrals regarding her. In an affidavit filed with Lorain County Juvenile Court seeking temporary emergency custody of Perez’s children, former Children Services caseworker Stephen Silva noted squalor and disarray in the home during various visits.
The affidavit noted that Perez’s children were removed from her care Jan. 17, 2008, when the courts declared the children neglected and dependent and granted custody to Children Services. But in April of that same year, Children Services deemed Perez again able to care for the children and they were returned to her.
The children remained with Perez until her most recent arrest.
Basinski said although Children Services can remove a child from a parent’s home, it is the court’s responsibility to make permanent or temporary custody arrangements.
Just because Children Services takes a child out of a home doesn’t mean that the courts will back the agency’s decision, said Crystal Ward Allen, executive director of the Public Children Services Agency of Ohio.
“(The courts) don’t rubber stamp child welfare,” she said, adding that children will be returned to the home if the removal is deemed unwarranted.
Each case comes to court from a complaint. When a complaint is made to Children Services, the agency has 30 to 45 days to complete a full assessment and file a case in court. The case then moves to a pretrial hearing, where parents of an alleged abused, neglected or dependent child can receive counsel.
The child can also receive representation from a guardian ad litem, who is appointed by the court to represent the interests of children, the unborn or incompetent persons in legal actions.
The guardian ad litem can complete his or her own investigation and acts in the best interests of the child.
Adjudicatory hearings follow the pretrial to determine if a child is “abused, neglected or dependent.” Boros said these determinations are made on the strength of evidence presented and the statutory definition of an “abused, neglected or dependent” child.
Emergency ex-parte cases may also be heard if the child is believed to be in “immediate danger.” These cases are heard within 72 hours and require temporary custody placements.
“There has to be some indication that the child is in serious danger,” Basinski said.
Once a child is adjudicated neglected, abused or dependent, the court holds a disposition hearing to determine what orders the parents of the child must take or whether temporary custody should be granted to Children Services or a relative.
Jim Gemelas, a guardian ad litem, said children are often placed with family members because foster care is expensive.
According to a police report, Erica Perez’s sisters, Monica Perez and Jessica Lopez, were given temporary custody of the children following Erica Perez’s arrest.
According to Lorain County Children Services’ website, foster parents are given $33 per day from the county to care for children ages 13 and younger. The parents receive $38 per day for children ages 14 to 18.
Becoming a foster parent is also time-consuming and can be a daunting process, according to Patti-Jo Burtnett, spokeswoman for Children Services.
Prospective foster parents must complete a criminal background check, medical tests, proof of residency and income as well as a long checklist as part of a home study.
In July 2011, Lorain County Children Services had 97 licensed foster families. In July 2012, that number dipped to 88. Burtnett said just 70 children are staying with foster families.
“Although the numbers are positive in that we have more foster family resources than children who currently need to stay with a foster family, there is an ongoing need for foster families for adolescents, for sibling groups, and for children who have mild to moderate behavior problems related to them having been abused or neglected,” she said.
Gemelas said these problems — the child’s age or disabilities — can give the court trouble when determining the child’s placement. He added that because the goal of Children Services is to keep siblings together, large families may also present a problem.
Perez has eight children — only seven were in her care at the time of her arrest — and is pregnant. At least one of her children suffers from frequent seizures and another suffers from anger outbursts and ADHD, according to court documents and police reports.
An older child who wasn’t in the home at the time was moved elsewhere because he was accused of sexual activity with his sisters.
“(Children) come with some of the problems of their parents,” Gemelas said.
Plan for parents
During Children Services’ involvement, parents are often given a case plan to complete, which identifies challenges that need to be fixed in order for risk to be reduced, according to Burtnett.
Basinski said the case plan is drafted by Children Services, but parents and their lawyers must agree to it. The case plan must also be approved by the court and may contain recommendations for mental health counseling, domestic violence classes or regular visits with the child.
Basinski said if a parent completes the case plan, Children Services cannot take custody of the parent’s children.
“Parents are somewhat fearful of case plans, but that can be kind of a protection for them,” he said.
Burtnett said, however, that parents are still subject to further action from Children Services, regardless of completion of a case plan. If another issue arises with the family, Children Services may again step in.
Perez reportedly completed the requirements that she was given when her children were returned to her care in 2008, but Children Services noted in an affidavit that Perez “was in contact with LCCS, yet was hesitant to participate in services. Reportedly, mother blamed family members for LCCS involvement.”
Ward Allen said because of state statutes and court requirements, child welfare agencies are constantly questioning which actions they can take.
“Children Services has been in a dilemma in how do we respond and make sure children are safe,” she said. “In most cases, the child is left in the home whenever possible … Where do you draw the line? It’s a difficult thing.”
Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or firstname.lastname@example.org.