Learning about Seneca CPS

Community leaders gathered Wednesday morning to discuss the protection of children who may have been abused or neglected.

Seneca County Department of Job and Family Services personnel were joined by community partners and Ohio DJFS representatives at the county DJFS office to discuss Child Protective Services in the county.

County DJFS Director Kathy Oliver thanked those in attendance for taking in the presentation. Several groups were represented, including Tiffin Police Department, Fostoria Police Department, Tiffin Fire Rescue Division, Tiffin-Seneca United Way, Fostoria United Way, Family and Children First Council, Seneca County commissioners and Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Seneca, Sandusky and Wyandot Counties.

“You’re here because you have an interest in protecting kids,” Oliver said.

Kaitlin Hartzell, a technical assistance specialist for ODJFS, gave a presentation on CPS.

She said the first step of the process is getting referrals from the community if child abuse or neglect is suspected. Next, the county DJFS must gather information and decide if action is needed in the case. She said if the department decides not to take the case, it remains in the system for future reference.

If there is a legitimate concern, an investigation occurs. At this point, the case follows one of two paths. Hartzell said the traditional response labels a perpetrator and a victim, while the alternative response does not. She said alternative response cases typically are less serious and focus on helping the family through preventative services.

Hartzell said an assessment is made of the child’s safety. This assessment must occur within four working days of the start of the investigation. After this, in-home visits and other research is done to produce a family assessment, within about the first 45 days.

She said a case decision soon can be reached after this. The case can be closed or kept ongoing, but services to help the family likely are to continue in either situation.

Hartzell said at the end of the process, the county department decides if the child will remain in the custody of a parent, a member of their family, or if the county takes custody.

In extreme cases, the department may take legal action to remove the child from the home earlier in the process.

Hartzell said removing children from their home is a final option, one that the state tries to avoid.

“It’s the most traumatic experience,” she said. “Our job is to keep children with their families if we are able to. We try as much as we can.”

Jeff Sell, the CPS administrator for the county DJFS, said to remove children from the home, there must be the threat of “serious imminent harm.”

County DJFS attorney Victor Perez joined Sell to discuss the CPS system, which is governed by the Ohio Revised Code and the Ohio Administrative Code.

Sell and Perez discussed the importance of preserving the rights of parents.

“We have to follow the law,” Perez said. “We cannot infringe on the parents’ rights.”

Perez said terminating parental rights indefinitely is the civil equivalent to the death penalty, but it can happen after a year or more in which no improvement has been shown in a case.

“It’s a pretty drastic measure,” he said. “It’s the last alternative.”

Sell said the Seneca County agency receives about 1,200 referrals a year. With this volume, limited staffing and lack of funding are some of the biggest challenges the organization faces.

Oliver said Ohio’s Child Protective Services state funding ranks last in the nation. Sell said even if current funding doubled, the state still would rank 50th.

Also during the meeting, Hartzell said a Child Protection Oversight and Evaluation assessment recently was completed for the county. She said the assessment is performed about once every two years.

She said the county had no items that required improvement for the second consecutive report. During the last report, the county was one of 11 of Ohio’s 88 counties with no required areas of improvement.

Seneca County Commissioner Shayne Thomas congratulated the organization for the honor.

“They rated 100 percent on the majority of items and were cited as having best practices in many of the areas, most of them actually,” he said. “The review was in the top level of reviews (the state) had seen.”

Thomas said the audit process included randomly selected cases.