MOUNT VERNON — Public perception for any business and organization is crucial to its overall success, especially when that agency has been charged with the goal of keeping the county’s children safe. For Knox County Children Services, public perception does not always match up with the mission of the agency or the efforts of the employees.
“There is a perception that goes one of two ways. Either we move in and yank children or we don’t do anything. That seems to be the two ends of the spectrum and does not include all the things in the middle that happen,” said Jana Shira KCCS administrator.
Over 2,100 calls for services were received by KCCS in 2010. Included in that number were calls of reported abuse or neglect, child support or visitation issues, reports of “dirty” households and many other topics.
“A fourth of the calls we received last year were actually opened for investigation,” said Shira. “Of those 497 cases, 164 went to our on-going staff. The others were generally referred out and closed.”
To further break down the cases that were opened for investigation, 41 families were assisted by family aides, 22 families received family education, 40 children were placed with family or friends as part of the kinship program and 25 were placed outside of the home through the agency.
Taking children from their home is never the ultimate goal for children services and is certainly never the first step when investigating reports of abuse or neglect.
“Our primary focus is to keep the family together,” Shira said. “If a child is out of the home for a certain period of time, our goal is to reunify them with their family. There are times we can’t do that and there are times we end up with that child in our care for a long time. Sometimes it is an adoption situation and sometimes not. Even when they are out of the home, we try to keep as much of that family relationship intact as possible.”
Shira, along with agency director Matthew Kurtz, said too many county residents are quick to criticize the efforts of case workers and investigators when, after placing a call to report suspected abuse, the child remains with the family.
“Often, we have to do what we know is right because we know it’s right,” Kurtz said. “It’s in our statutes that fall within what we have to do. The critics will have to fall where they may. We won’t be able to answer for ourselves because it is all confidential. We won’t be able to defend ourselves because it’s all private. But we know it’s right and we know it’s the best we can do for the people involved.”
In fact, social workers alone do not have the power to remove children from their home. That decision is made through law enforcement or the juvenile court system. However, Children Services is charged with the authority to investigate abuse and neglect situations.
Even if an initial assessment does not warrant further investigation, Children Services does refer families to resources in the community that can help them build a better family.
“It’s the balance of wanting to protect children, wanting to help families and not wanting to be intrusive,” Shira said.
Children Services is staffed with 30 employees including 24 clinical workers who are required to have a minimum four-year college degree in social work or a related field, 120 hours of core training during the first year of employment and 36 hours of additional training every year after that.
Funding for Children Services comes from a combination of federal, state and local monies. Forty-two percent of the $2 million annual budget comes from the federal government. A required state and local funding match includes approximately $340,000 from the state of Ohio and 41 percent acquired through a local 1.3-mill levy which was first approved in 1989.
“Without that (local) support, we would be in a world of hurt and would have to trim our expenditures quite a bit,” Kurtz said. “… We feel very privileged to have such a strong community support. We feel very supported by that funding.”
Because the community continues to support the endeavors of children’s services through the approval of the 10-year levy renewal, Kurtz said there is a higher level of accountability to the residents of Knox County.
“I would hope the people would understand we are doing the best we can,” Kurtz said. “We feel more accountable. We often talk about the three-part accountability that we have. We have accountability to the client — to the child and to the family. We have accountability to federal and state government and their structure to oversight. The third point to the triangle that we always feel accountable is to the people of Knox County.”
Editor’s note: This is the first piece in a weeklong series of stories about Knox County Children Services. Tuesday we will explore what happens when a report is received that alleges suspected abuse or neglect. To make such a report, a 24-hour abuse hotline can be accessed by calling 392-KIDS (5437).