Ohio AG and group to unveil changes to improve child welfare system

DeWine, Child Safety Summits announces changes Monday

Declaring that “it’s time to be bold and innovative,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is releasing a report Monday about the condition of the state’s child welfare system. A newly-formed foster care advisory group also will be announced to address problems identified during eight Child Safety Summits held earlier this year, including an April 19 event in Dayton.

The advisory group faces a 90-day deadline for reporting back to the public. “We have an immediate, urgent need for solutions,” DeWine told the Dayton Daily News Friday. “We are hearing constantly that the system waits too long to sever ties with parents who are parents in name only, and these kids can’t be adopted. We are giving endless chances to the crack-addicted mother or the father with massive anger problems while the child remains in legal limbo.”

DeWine’s report will reveal the findings from the summits that were held all over the state from April through August. The Attorney General’s office has assembled a 20-member advisory group comprised of adoption workers, juvenile court judges, legislators and prosecuting attorneys, including Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters.

“We hope the report will kick off the discussion,” DeWine said. “We have assembled a broad cross-section of people who have knowledge of the issue. It’s a very diverse group, and they may have very different ideas. We are being challenged to consider what we are going to do as a community, a state and a people.”

DeWine convened the child safety summits after the high-profile deaths of 14-year-old Makayla Norman of Dayton, a cerebral palsy patient who starved to death march 1, 2011, and two-year-old DeMarcus Jackson of Cincinnati. DeMarcus was beaten to death Sept. 23, 2011, only a month after being returned to his biological family, over the strong objections of the foster parents who had raised him since birth. His father, Antrone Smith, has been charged with murder.

The advisory group will examine key issues identified during the summits, including the length of time that kids are allowed to remain in foster care; the exclusion of foster parents’ voices from court hearings when decisions are made about the child’s future; the quality of foster care and how to improve it; and whether children are being reunified too soon with their birth families.

The group also will examine the effectiveness of guardian ad litems and whether they are truly acting as independent advocates for the child. “Some are great but some aren’t taking the time to know the child or the situation or to do their jobs,” DeWine said.

Many speakers at the child safety summits voiced concern about the state’s planned permanent living arrangement category, a custody status in which parental rights of a child are maintained, reunification efforts are not required, and adoption is not possible. DeWine sees it as an end run around the state’s time limits on the amount of time a child can spend in foster care.

“These children are in a legal no-man’s-land,” DeWine said. “They can’t be adopted and we as a society apparently think it’s OK to let them sit there. That’s a different form of abusing, ignoring or taking advantage of these children. So I feel a great sense of urgency. We have a moral imperative to do something about this.”

The advisory group may propose some legislative solutions, “but we’re not going to restrict it,” he said. “We want this group to think outside the box.”