BY STEVE KEMME
The Cincinnati Enquirer
HAMILTON -- A custody fight involving a Hamilton grandmother and her 4-year-old granddaughter has prompted Butler County Commissioner Mike Fox to blast John McAninch, executive director of Butler County Children Services.
Mr. Fox believes Joey Sempecos Langford was unfairly denied custody last year of her 4-year-old granddaughter, who was taken away from her mother because of neglect.
He asked Mr. McAninch to come to the commissioners' meeting Thursday and answer questions he has about Children Services' policies and procedures.
But Mr. McAninch declined, citing a written opinion he had obtained from Prosecutor John Holcomb. Mr. Holcomb said in a Dec. 1 letter to the commissioners that they have no authority to ask ChildrenServices questions about pending juvenile cases or about specific procedures involving those cases. Mr. Fox said he thinks Children Services, whose board members are appointed by the commissioners, can talk about portions of cases that are already public record.
He angrily accused Mr. McAninch and Children Services of being arrogant and unresponsive to public concerns.
"John's refusal to come here undermines the public trust and confidence in the agency and damages their ability to protect abused and neglected children in this county," Mr. Fox said.
Mr. McAninch has spoken on many occasions to the commissioners about Children Services' policies and programs, he said.
Robert Cottrell, chairman of the Children Services Board, said the board directed Mr. McAninch not to appear before the commissioners to discuss the Langford case on the advice of the prosecutor's office.
Ohio's privacy laws concerning juvenile cases are strict, he said.
Mr. Cottrell said the board shares Mr. Fox's desire to improve communications with the public, but can't discuss specific cases. The board will be glad to talk to the commissioners about general policies and procedures.
"We don't have any problems in working with this group of commissioners," Mr. Cottrell said.
Mrs. Langford, unaware that Mr. McAninch would not attend, came to the commissioners' Thursday morning meeting.
Her husband, Marty Langford, and several relatives and friends, including the pastor of her church, also showed up to support her. "I want to bring her home," a tearful Mrs. Langford said after the meeting. "I just miss her so much."
She said she was disappointed Mr. McAninch didn't attend the meeting.
To allow a foster couple to adopt her granddaughter, Mrs. Langford had signed away her custodial rights, believing they would be restored if the adoption fell through.
When the couple divorced, Mrs. Langford's granddaughter was sent to live with other foster parents even though Mrs. Langford asked for custody.
Mrs. Langford, who already has custody of the girl's 5-year-old brother, doesn't even have visitation rights.
Michelle Wenker, Mrs. Langford's attorney, said she filed an appeal this week with the Ohio Supreme Court that
challenges the lower court decisions in this case.
The basis of the appeal is Mrs. Langford's contention that a Butler County court magistrate had misled her about the consequences of signing the custody order, Ms. Wenker said. Last week, she filed a petition for adoption with the Butler County Probate Court.
A hearing for visitation rights is scheduled for Dec. 30 before Judge David Niehaus of Butler County Juvenile Court. Mrs. Langford said she wishes the visitation hearing could be held before Christmas.
"I was just hoping she and her brother could be together at least for Christmas," she said.