Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Child agency's reforms debated

Baby's death prompts new discussions

By Steve Kemme
Enquirer staff writer

HAMILTON - The death of a 7-month-old boy in a trailer fire that authorities say was intentionally set by his mother has raised a new cloud over the Butler County agency that was supposed to protect the child.

Butler County Children Services, which has undergone sweeping reforms in recent years, is investigating the handling of the case by the two caseworkers monitoring the mother, who earlier had two other children taken away from her. A hearing officer will consider evidence presented at a private hearing last week and will recommend whether the two caseworkers should be disciplined. The Children Services Board is expected to take action today.

The death is the first major controversy in the 18-month tenure of the agency's executive director, Jann Heffner, who led a successful campaign last year to renew a critical 2-mill tax levy and has led changes in the agency.

Critics in the past had complained that the agency was too quick to remove children from their homes, shipped too many children to out-of-county foster homes, and insensitively treated families and the general public. Four months ago, Heffner told county commissioners that the agency had helped keep more families together by getting help for troubled families instead of removing the children and placing them in foster care or institutions.

But the death of Justin Johnson Jr. in a Feb. 4 Madison Township trailer fire generated questions about how much the agency actually has progressed.

Children Services had been working with Justin's mother, Aimee Leonard, before the baby's death.

Leonard is accused of involuntary manslaughter and child endangering. She has been found competent to stand trial, but is undergoing a second mental evaluation.

County Commissioner Mike Fox, who has criticized Children Services in the past, says Justin's death shows that investigations and information technology systems could be better, he said. But it doesn't mean the agency hasn't made improvements.

"I don't want this one case that went wrong to overshadow the fact that there are children alive today because the agency performed well," Fox said. "But we need to learn from the Leonard case and make changes in policies and procedures and resource allocation to make sure we do better in the future."

Dennis Yavorsky, a Bridgetown resident who has belonged to groups critical of Children Services agencies in Butler and Hamilton counties, takes a dimmer view.

"The reforms are completely dead," he said. "The idea of oversight or accountability or systematic improvements is all gone."

But Children Services officials say the reform movement is stronger than ever.

"This agency's reforms are alive and well," said the Rev. Johnny Wade Sloan, Children Services Board chairman. "Last September, Jann presented us with a five-year strategic plan, and we are implementing it step by step."

He said the Leonard case will not cause the agency to make any improvements it wasn't already planning.

"We're just trying to speed things up," Sloan said.

Fox said the Leonard case underscores the need for Children Services to take these steps:

• Improve the quality of its investigations into alleged abuse and neglect cases.

• Develop a more sophisticated, integrated information system that can quickly tip off caseworkers to past issues. If the caseworkers had more information in the Leonard case, Justin's death might have been prevented, Fox said.

• Hire a strong, independent ombudsman to examine serious complaints about how the agency handles certain cases. The man who had been the ombudsman resigned earlier this year.

• Give parents and other parties involved in abuse and neglect cases greater access to records and documents in the agency's files.

Children Services officials say the agency has addressed or is addressing all of those issues through the following steps:

• To improve investigations, Children Services has been recruiting staff with more experience and education, has hired two psychologists, two case reviewers and two facilitators and has created the positions of training and special projects director as well as director of policy and program development.

• The agency recently signed a contract to improve its information processing system. Finances limit how much Children Services can upgrade its information technology, said Tom Nowel, Children Services human resources director. The agency had to slash $5 million from its budget last year to avoid a financial crisis.

• A new ombudsman will be hired soon.

• Reforms are in place to ensure that families' rights are protected and that they and other pertinent parties have access to information, Nowel said.

Curt Compton, who resigned from the Children Services Board two months ago, said Justin's death shows the need for better training of caseworkers.

"There are a lot of very, very good people in the trenches down there at that agency," Compton said. "In cases like this, it's the management that has let them down, that hasn't provided enough training, oversight, counseling or enough help to get these people through the tough decisions that they've got to make."

Staff training has increased greatly in recent years and will continue to be emphasized, Heffner said.

"We're poised to make this a state-of-the-art agency," she said. "We're not where we want to be yet. There are clearly some things we still need to work on."


Janice Morse of the Enquirer contributed to this report. E-mail skemme@enquirer.com

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