ELYRIA — Lorain County Children Services spent $136,873 on out-of-state travel expenses last year — $110,000 more than an agency serving a county nearly triple the size of Lorain County.
The agency’s procedures for working on custody arrangements out of state — procedures that differ from most other Children Services agency — have come under fire as the agency has been forced to lay off staff and increase workloads.
In addition, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services — the state agency tasked with overseeing Children Services agencies across the state — has ordered additional training for LCCS after children it placed in West Virginia were mistreated, and LCCS was found to have violated terms of an agreement designed to make sure children placed across state lines receive the appropriate services.
LCCS spokeswoman Patti-Jo Burtnett and Executive Deputy Director Jane Robertson have defended the agency’s practices. Burtnett said the added costs of out-of-state visits equate to safely and permanently placing a child — the agency’s top priority.
Some LCCS workers, including former union head Angie Martinez, criticized the agency’s spending during a meeting of the Lorain County Children Services board in January. Workers, who did not wish to be named for fear of retaliation from the agency, cited wasteful spending as the reason 14 employees were laid off in mid-February.
Workers also criticized the agency’s monthly lunches at Red Lobster, which cost the agency $831 in 2012.
Burtnett said the purpose of the lunches is to set the agenda for the meetings, which are held at a time and place that’s convenient to everyone.
Attendees include the agency’s director, the chair of the Children Services board, the deputy director of LCCS and other management, depending on the agenda.
During the recent round of layoffs, the agency also cut providing transportation to foster families. According to a letter for Jane Robertson, LCCS deputy executive director, foster parents are now responsible for ongoing transportation to doctors, counseling and other appointments. Some of the transportation was being provided by case aides, 10 of whom were laid off.
The agency said the layoffs and cuts were made due to a decrease in local revenues by approximately $700,000 per year, and $4 million in federal and state reductions since 2008.
On the road
Other agencies differ from LCCS in their approaches to determining safe placement for a child.
While LCCS sends caseworkers as far as Alaska and Puerto Rico monthly to conduct home studies and visits to potential placements, agencies like Butler County Children Services and Cuyahoga County Children Services leave most such visits to the agency in the state in question.
Those agencies rely on an agreement known as the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, which helps ensure child safety when moving across state lines.
“Conceptually, it’s a cooperative agreement among the states to manage the placement of children across state lines,” said Crystal Ward Allen, executive director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio.
Ward Allen said that under the agreement, an agency in Florida can conduct a home study of a family in that state who is being considered as a possible home for a child in the care of an Ohio agency.
While there is nothing in the compact that says the Ohio agency can’t do its own home study in other states, the receiving state is still required to assess the home, said Benjamin Johnson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
Burtnett said LCCS decided to do the grunt work itself because bureaucracy has been problematic when working with others states. Although she would not provide specific examples, she said the process can lead to delays, and because time can be a dangerous thing to waste when children are in a bad home environment, the agency adopted its current plan of action.
“There were times when we had problems with placement and disruption of services,” Burtnett said.
Ward Allen acknowledged that the process can be extremely slow and frustrating. She said while different agencies have different policies on when to go out of state with children, sometimes the rules of the interstate compact are meant to be broken.
“People go through it, they use it, but there are some situations that they feel they can’t wait six months to go through it,” she said.
West Virginia breakdown
But going outside the lines can cause issues, as LCCS found late last year.
On March 20, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services held a special administrative review and found that LCCS breached the interstate compact, and in doing so it led to children being mistreated in West Virginia.
The children were placed in the home of relatives in West Virginia, and LCCS did not work with Children Services in West Virginia during the placement.
According to the review, LCCS approved placing children in the home of some relatives whose foster care license had been terminated, which violated terms of the interstate compact as well as Ohio Administrative Code.
A summary of the findings stated that “critical information related to the prospective caregivers’ involvement with other public or private agencies was not obtained or addressed.”
Burtnett acknowledged that the agency had not requested paperwork on the family through the compact, but she said the incident was due to a misunderstanding between states.
She said LCCS had 70 incoming and outgoing ICPC agreements during that time, and LCCS believed that the process, which includes filing paperwork with the agency in the state in question, was limited to children in the custody of LCCS.
According to Burtnett, the children placed in the home in West Virginia were not in the protective custody of LCCS or the West Virginia agency. LCCS was working to find a good home for the children with a family in that state.
“Our ICPC experience also included having ICPC paperwork denied by states who said that they cannot help since the children going to relatives in those states were not in our custody. We proceeded under that understanding with the relatives in West Virginia,” Burtnett said in an email response. “ODJFS clarified that their understanding is that we need to complete the paperwork in every instance and let the receiving state decide if our situation fits their criteria for ICPC collaboration.”
The Ohio Administrative Code lists when the ICPC compact would not be used, such as if a placement was for a temporary social or cultural experience or the party the child is staying with will not assume legal responsibility for the child.
The compact includes procedures for placing children across state lines and ensures both the receiving and the sending state have an opportunity to review placement options for the child.
Burtnett added that LCCS has submitted a required Corrective Action Plan designed to prevent similar situations from occurring again. The agency now receives additional training and has corrected its procedures so that staff will send paperwork in every situation, allowing the receiving state to decide its level of involvement, she said.
Burtnett would not say what happened with the children, and the paperwork on their case is not public record.
Burtnett said the importance of visiting homes with children is to ensure a safe transition. She said the agency would be criticized if it placed a child in a home it did not visit, especially if something bad were to happen. That’s why the travel money is well spent, she said.
“We have never had a practice in which we’ve placed children with people who we’ve never seen, so we plan to continue with that,” she said.
Workers at Hamilton County Children Services agree.
Caseworkers at Hamilton County Children Services visit out-of-state homes with children once every three months, according to the agency’s spokesman Brian Gregg.
“We want to be familiar with where we’re placing our kids,” said Gregg, who added that the visits stop as soon as the child is permanently placed.
But the agency, which covers a population of 851,967, spends much less than LCCS, which serves a county of 302,811. The population figures came from the U.S. Census Bureau.
According to financial records from 2012 provided by Gregg, caseworkers at Hamilton County Children Services spent an average of $920 per trip for a total travel budget of $26,676 that year.
The expenses did not include the cost of trips made to neighboring states, which Gregg said are often shorter drives than those to some Ohio homes. The costs include only gas mileage, he added.
Caseworkers at LCCS spent thousands on the cost of airfare alone, according to credit card receipts from the agency. Some trips included a “digEplayer” for a flight for three children and an adult, a $100 dinner at Outback Steakhouse for two caseworkers and an adoptive family, a $250 Walmart gift card for a family adopting a child and $174 spent at Hard Rock Cafe.
During their trips, caseworkers stayed at Residence Inn, Ramada Inn and Suites, and Doubletree by Hilton, among others. Most of the stays cost more than $200.
LCCS also took more trips than Hamilton County Children Services. The agency took 129 trips that required a flight while Hamilton County took 29 in 2012.
Burtnett said caseworkers are given limits on spending, but those limits are adjusted during out-of-state trips when the cost of a dinner can be far more than in Ohio.
Burtnett said while the agency may be spending more on out-of-state travel costs, there are additional costs to consider that offsets those expenses. Those include the cost of foster care, which she estimates is $1.2 million each year, or about $100,926 a month.
In quickly placing children into a permanent home, LCCS excels.
According to the PCSAO 2011-2012 Factbook, Butler County had 306 children living in foster care compared to Lorain County’s 72.
Because the expenses for foster care are paid on a per diem rate, Burtnett said the cost of care for children who linger in foster care is higher than the cost of caring for children for whom a new home is found quickly.
In Lorain County, the total number of placement days in 2009 was 48,757. In Butler it was 119,608.
Burtnett said the quick placement of children in a permanent arrangement is also better for that child’s emotional health.
“It is important to emphasize that foster care is a temporary arrangement that is, at times, necessary for a child while efforts are proceeding toward permanence for the child. Every day the child is in foster care must be used to pursue permanence for the child,” she said in an email statement. “The longer that takes, the less likely it is that the child will avoid the negative consequences of impermanence and instability in his or her life.”
Ward Allen said LCCS has always been aggressive in finding permanent placement. She praised the agency’s standards, which she said are higher than at most other agencies.
“They don’t have kids just sitting around in foster care,” she said. “They aggressively go find the right person for that kid.”
Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or firstname.lastname@example.org.