Children Services seeks money

Tax levy on May 8 ballot

Mike Webber likes to say it will cost $20 a year.

Doug Mallett prefers to say five cents a day.

Either way, they figure, it’s not much to ask for when the future of the county’s children is at stake.

Webber is co-chair of the Foster Placement Levy committee, a group dedicated to getting a tax levy passed on May 8 that would help Washington County Children Services meet a financial crisis. The levy, 0.55 mills for five years, would cost the owner of a property valued at $100,000 about $19.25 a year, or, in board member Mallett’s view, just over a nickel a day.

The funding crisis faced by the agency has been a long time building. In 2006, the county had 50 children in foster care, with placement costs of $237,188; in 2017 it had 144 children in care, some of whom needed to be placed outside the county and some of whom required special facilities, at a placement cost of $1,728,069.

The rise in court-ordered child removals is being blamed primarily on the opioid crisis. Many of the 144 children committed to the agency last year in Washington County had parents who were disabled, incarcerated or killed by drugs.

“It’s the opioid crisis effect, and the kids end up here,” Children Services executive director Jamie Vuksic said.

The agency is getting not only more children to care for, but the level of care needed is going up, and along with it the cost of placement.

“In the best case scenario this year, we’ll be $500,000 over our budget,” Vuksic said.

Basic foster home placement pays the foster family $20 a day — a compensation level Vuksic said has not gone up since he began in Washington County in 2002 — but some children need to be placed outside the county, and others, who have physical or behavioral disorders, need to go to specially trained foster families or specially equipped and staffed facilities or homes.

Two children from Washington County, for example, are placed in Pennsylvania. Mallett said the costs for such children can exceed $350 a day.

“Back in 2006, we didn’t have the same level of need, but now many have multiple mental health issues, there’s been a breakdown in family dynamics,” Vuksic said.

Because the growth of foster care need is statewide, he said, even distant facilities are full.

Placing children in distant locations also works against the ultimate goal of reuniting families, he said.

“Most of the time these families can’t travel,” he said.

The level of funding from the county has not kept pace with the demand, Mallett said.

“They’re after eliminating expenses,” he said.

Board member Timothy Loughry said the county commission has funded the agency at less than half the amount requested for 2018. Mallett said the continued financial challenges have diverted the board’s energy from its primary mission, which is to give the best care possible to the children that become its responsibility.

“Our board meetings are almost entirely about funding,” he said.

As the level of need has grown — the county is required by law to care for children removed by the court from their homes — the staffing level at Children Services has declined. In 2006, the agency had a staff of 40 to manage 50 children. In 2017, it had a caseload of 144 children and a staff of 32.

Kimberly Ensign is assessment unit supervisor for the agency. In addition to her management role, she also has her own caseload.

“We don’t have time any more to work with families to head off a crisis,” she said. “We investigated 60 reports, just this month.”

It’s difficult, demanding and exhausting work, she said. Investigations are lengthy, sometimes involving sexual abuse, neglect or drug use by parents or others close to the children. Workers encounter people at some of the worst times of their lives, and get little appreciation for their efforts.

The lack of funding impacts the children as well, she said.

“It’s a very frightening time for the kids, growing up in homes where their parents might be overdosing or even dying from drugs. They’re in fear of what they might find when they get home from school,” she said.

Tension and trauma can also effect the workers, she said, who sometimes have to confront combative people in dangerous situations by themselves.

“These are brave, brave people,” Ensign said. “And it’s frightening to know that on this job if you make a mistake, a child could die.”

First year social workers in the agency are paid about $27,000 a year, she said.

Cassidi Shoaf, a Marietta City Council member who also is a foster parent, is working with the committee promoting the Foster Placement Levy.

“The need is so great, with the number of kids coming into care,” she said. “There are kids being placed hours away … being taken away from everything they know, add on top of that a new school, a new community, just going to a new home by itself is overwhelming.”

Having more foster parents would be helpful, she said, but it still won’t solve the agency’s financial problems.

“As a conservative Republican, I am not for higher taxes, but five cents a day, what better cause could you use that for? To know how much lives could be changed by that, to give parents a chance to be healthy, to be that safe place where children can land while their families are being restored. People want to be connected to a solution,” she said.

The levy will raise about $817,000 a year, according to documents from the committee. The agency attempted to pass a levy in 2014 for the same millage level but over 10 years to fund school outreach, and a levy for 1.46 mills over 10 years for daily operations in 2012. Both were turned down by voters.

Webber said the campaign is raising money right now, with a goal of $25,000 to promote the levy. Donations can be sent to treasurer Brenda Wolfe at 615 Dana Road in Newport, Ohio, 45768. Webber can be contacted at 740-517-7172.

At a glance

Washington County Children Services

The caseload: Children in foster care placement

¯ 2006: 50.

¯ 2007:51.

¯ 2008:65.

¯ 2009: 89.

¯ 2010: 79.

¯ 2011: 64.

¯ 2012: 57.

¯ 2013: 69.

¯ 2014: 70.

¯ 2015:91.

¯ 2016: 114.

¯ 2017: 144.

¯ 2018: 162 (projected).

The staff

¯ 2006: 40.

¯ 2007:41.

¯ 2008:41.

¯ 2009: 39.

¯ 2010: 36.

¯ 2011: 31.

¯ 2012: 30.

¯2013: 30.

¯ 2014: 31.

¯ 2015:31.

¯ 2016: 32.

¯ 2017: 32.

¯ 2018: 32.

The costs for initial placements

2006: $237,118.

2017: $1,728,069.

2018: $1,975,183 (projected).

Source: Washington County Children Services.