Thursday, January 06, 2000

Children Services board asked to resign


Butler County commissioners want 'new direction'

BY JANICE MORSE and STEVE KEMME
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Calling for a fresh start for an agency rocked by controversy in the past year, the Butler County commissioners have asked for the resignations of all nine members of the Butler County Children Services Board.

        The commissioners said board members' continued resistance to greater openness and accountability prompted them to request the resignations this week.

        “We promised, in the (November) election, that this agency will be more open and accessible,” Commissioner Mike Fox said, referring to promises made to voters who approved the board's 2-mill levy renewal after two failed attempts.

        “We made a contract with the public, and the commissioners are bound and determined to make sure that trust and faith is not broken — and we need a team that believes in that mission.”

        The 11-seat volunteer board, which has two vacancies, makes decisions on policies and procedures for the board's paid staff of more than 100. The agency provides services for abused, neglected and dependent children.

        By law, commissioners could merge the board with the county Department of Human Services or could restructure the board so that its director reports directly to the commissioners. But the best option is a new, independent board that is accountable and open, Mr. Fox said.

        He has said the board needs to be more receptive to ques tions and criticism from the public and from families involved in the agency's investigations.

        Robert Cottrell, Children Services Board chairman, said he hasn't decided whether he will submit his resignation.

        He disputed the accusation that Children Services is a

        closed, insular agency. It has become much more open in the past year, he said. “We've been responsive to every inquiry that we've had.”

        As for Mr. Fox's call for greater accountability, the current commissioners have never given the board a specific set of goals, said Mr. Cottrell, who has served on the board seven years.

        The commissioners sent letters this week asking for board members' resignations by Jan. 12, and requesting their presence at a Jan. 13 reorganizational meeting.

        “We need a new outlook, some new blood, some new direction,” Commissioner Chuck Furmon said.

        Bob Bogan, Children Services spokesman, said when the agency's personnel learned Tuesday about the letters, “it caught us off guard, primarily because we thought we were heading toward stability.”

        Mr. Fox, however, said the commissioners have been dropping hints for months about “wrestling with what to do with the board.”

        In fact, Mr. Fox said, the state's highly critical performance audit, re leased just before the election, exposed deep-rooted problems that could have given the commissioners cause to outright dismiss the board.

        The audit, performed in May by the state auditor's office at the commissioners' request, said Children Services is understaffed, doesn't recruit enough foster parents, takes too long to investigate cases, and should upgrade its computer technology to store case file data and improve its handling of cases.

        The commissioners, however, chose not to dismiss the board members, but to ask for their resignations and to invite those interested to reapply for their posts.

        Madge Burton, a board member for the past year, said she agreed with the commissioners' request for the resignations.

        “The community spoke when it passed the levy,” she said. “The community definitely wants changes made. I want what is best for the children of Butler County.”

        The commissioners' action also pleased Dennis Yavorsky, a Bridgetown resident whose group, Parents Responsible for Family Integrity, has criticized Butler County Children Services for removing some children from their families without justification, they say.

        He's withholding final judgment about the reformation until he sees who the new board members are. “I hope that a more competent organization replaces what's been in power,” Mr. Yavorsky said. “I hope the agency doesn't tear apart as many families as it has been.”

        Mr. Cottrell said the agency has made significant progress in that area. At end of 1999, the agency had 100 fewer children in custody than at the end of 1998, he said.

        “These have been rough times,” Mr. Bogan said. “These board members have put in many more hours than most volunteers are ever expected to.”

        Despite the resignation call, the commissioners said they are grateful for the volunteers' work.

        Still, Mr. Fox said, the commissioners found the move toward a new board “necessary to ensure that (Children Services) doesn't fall back into a business-as-usual mode now that they've got their levy money.”

       



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