As child welfare agencies throughout Ohio are working on the impact of the opioid epidemic, Butler County has used new strategies in recent years that have helped it keep more children at home and recruit foster families, officials said.
“Since 2013, the number of children coming into the foster care system has risen 24 percent,” according to an Ohio Foster Care Advisory Group report. “A major contributor to this trend has been Ohio’s opioid epidemic.”
As of early March there were 390 kids in Butler County Children Services custody, 141 in Butler County licensed foster homes, 214 in “out-of-network” homes like the Buckeye Ranch and 35 cared for by relatives. There are now 151 children eligible for adoption whose reunification with their birth parents has been ruled out by the courts.
The state is urging more people to become foster parents to meet the growing need for safe places for abused and neglected children. Butler County has found a unique way to recruit foster families, one that doesn’t just convince people to take kids in, but offers a host of supports to ensure they’ll be successful.
Butler County hit a crisis stage in late 2013 when there were 460 children in the county’s custody, with 268 in foster care home placement and the rest either in the process of being adopted, in group homes or receiving residential treatment. Only 116 of those children in foster care home placement were in local homes licensed by Butler County. The cost for in-county placement is about $25 compared to $53 per day.
The agency launched a complete overhaul in early 2014, soliciting input from groups of former clients, foster children and families, law enforcement, social service agencies and faith-based organizations to gain perspective on what things they can improve upon. Stepping up foster family recruitment was part of that effort.
Hope’s Closet on Dayton Street in Hamilton is run by foster parents who collect clothing and other items for foster kids. The group has also been collecting foster families for the county by recruiting volunteers who work at the boutique for about four years.
Executive Director Sarah Coleman has five biological children, and she and her husband Tim have adopted two of their foster kids and will likely adopt their 15-month-old foster child as well. She said the idea was to give support to foster families who often take charge of very traumatized children with special needs. It’s easy, she said, for new foster parents to get disheartened, no matter their good intentions.
“It’s like they are complete newbies thrown out into the wild and it’s sink or swim,” she said. “Then you’re placed with a traumatized child that has potentially lots of difficult issues. To be able to form this network of support around them, to build them into being stronger foster families means they might not give up on that child so quickly.”
She said she presented a plan to Job and Family Services Executive Director Bill Morrison involving a grassroots network of foster parents.
“It was a very outside-of-the-box, not-traditional way that they recruit,” she said. “I said what they’re doing now doesn’t work there’s nothing wrong with trying something different. What is it not going to work more?”
In the past year they have recruited 40 families, and there are 47 more in the process of qualifying for licenses to foster. The county has paid Hope’s Closet $229,877 over four years to hire staff and pay bills to run the boutique and recruit.
“They have found that building relationships with individuals coming into Hope’s Closet has really helped them recruit foster parents,” BCCS Director Julie Gilbert said.
Finding homes for teenagers is a struggle, according to Morrison. Gilbert said there are 173 licensed foster homes in the county but only 141 foster children reside in-county because many licensed homes have criteria that don’t include wanting to take in older children.
The state has also developed a new website that offers a wealth of information about the foster care system and how to become a part of it. The website is: FosterAndAdopt.jfs.ohio.gov.
Butler County has been successful in reducing the need for out-of-home placements. Morrison has put in place many new initiatives to reduce the number of child removals, as well.
“Our motivation is about reducing trauma,” he said. “Because that action of taking the kids out of the family and placing them in foster care is an extraordinarily traumatic event for them to go through and it has long-term consequences.”
Social workers no longer make removal decisions on their own, and discussions are required with two levels of superiors, so every avenue is explored to reduce the trauma on the children, mainly by finding family members or friends, officials said.
“We’ve developed a really thoughtful way of approaching these decisions that are at times life and death decisions,” Morrison said. “I think that has more to do with why we’ve been successful in a way that other people haven’t been successful than anything else.”
It hasn’t just been internal controls either, BCCS re-instituted the Family Drug Treatment Court several years ago, in the height of opiate epidemic. The Family Preservation Program — that provides intensive in-home visits by contracted social workers to keep the family intact while parents get help — was reconstituted in 2016. The in-house program was dismantled years earlier due to budget constraints.
“We’re always thinking about what other tools can we give to workers to allow for safety of the child without having removal,” Morrison said. “That’s why we developed the Family Preservation Program… We’re always looking for every idea we can deploy to try to serve families intact and if we have to remove them to get the kids back home as quickly as we possibly can.”