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State leaders look to reform foster care system

Sen. Peggy Lehner is sponsoring legislation to improve Ohio’s foster care system, based on recommendations released Monday from the state attorney general’s office.

The Kettering Republican said she’s heard from several foster parents who thought a child was returned prematurely to the birth parents and the changes she’s proposing are a start to reform.

“Every child deserves to belong to a loving, supportive family,” Lehner said. “Unfortunately, far too many of our children see that only as a dream that they hold silently in their hearts that they move from one family to another.”

The Foster Care Advisory Group, composed of attorneys, child welfare advocates and others involved in foster care services, recommended solutions to some of the concerns raised during a year’s worth of public meetings held across the state.

Recommendations include:

* limiting permanent foster care situations;

* allowing youth to be present at their court hearings if appropriate;

* clarifying when foster children can participate in normal childhood activities such as sleepovers.

Lehner’s bill would allow courts to terminate parental rights after three different court cases involving child maltreatment. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said the safety and best interests of the child should be the No. 1 priority ahead of placing a child back with his or her natural parents, according to federal law, but he’s not convinced the law is being followed.

“We have to say much earlier than we are saying today to those parents in name only… ‘your little child has got to grow up and that child needs stable and loving parents — this child can’t wait for you,’” DeWine said.

DeWine said 51 Ohio counties do not have a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) program, which uses highly trained volunteers who investigate foster cases to help determine the best interests of the children. DeWine said his office will provide an additional $2 million to expand the program and supported creating a new state pool of money to equalize disparity in child services funding among Ohio’s 88 counties.

Ohio counties without local child services levies spend on average $108 per child compared to $368 per child in counties that have a levy, according to a report released last month by the Public Children Services Association of Ohio.

The organization suggested the state allocate $70 million over two years to help counties leverage their local dollars to improved child welfare services.

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