Written by: John Jarvis, The Marion Star
MARION – While she said it’s too early to provide statistical evidence locally, the Marion County Children Services director insists that by using a new state-approved approach involving families her agency is seeing improved results in child neglect cases.
“It eliminates the labels, which tend to create barriers,” Jacqueline Ringer, the director, said. “Minnesota’s been doing this for over 10 years. They have found it actually reduces the recidivism rate and the number of children requiring foster care placements.”
The Ohio Alternative Response Pilot Project grew from an initiative of the Ohio Supreme Court and Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. The Ohio Legislature authorized up to 10 counties to pilot the alternative response model. Franklin County was one of the counties that participated in the initial project, which began in July 2008 and ran through December 2009.
Marion County was among a fifth round of counties that implemented the program, in April 2012, Ringer said. The state’s goal is to implement the alternative response statewide by June 2014.
“We waited for results, which came out in 2010,” she said. “It showed better outcomes for families and local communities,” with an increasing number of case workers who used the alternative response linking families with services. “Families were more satisfied, and when you’re more satisfied you’re more likely to follow through.”
As an alternative approach to the traditional child protective services investigation, the new response uses a non-adversarial approach that avoids determination of fault and identification of victims and perpetrators, states an executive summary conducted by the Institute of Applied Research in St. Louis, Mo.
Ringer said Marion County Children Services uses the alternative response, also known as differentiated response, to handle child neglect cases that are reported to the agency. Neglect is the failure to provide a child with his or her basic needs, she said.
“We used to do one size fits all,” she said, describing the traditional investigation, which involved investigating an allegation and identifying the perpetrator and determining the basic facts of the case. As its name suggests, alternative response allows the children services agency a second way to respond to an allegation of child neglect, she said.
The collaborative approach also saves the agency money, a valuable byproduct as annual receipts shrink, from $3,372,909 in 2010 to $2,888,621 in 2012, she said. Meanwhile, the agency’s expenditures decreased from $3,198,188 in 2010 to $3,135,763 in 2012.
“We don’t look at it through a financial lens, but by doing what’s best for (the children) it also benefits the bottom line,” Ringer said. “If we’re doing our jobs well, the families are not going to need our services in the future, children are going to be saved, and if you don’t need our services, great.”
She said the agency is proud that, while revenue has decreased in recent years, so have expenditures “and a lot of that is because of our reduction in the number of children in residential facilities.”
Ringer has estimated agency expenditures of $3,821,698 in 2013 and estimated receipts of $2,753,474 in 2013.
“We always have to budget high,” Ringer said. “When you consider our placement costs, I have no control over the children that some into our custody and the needs that they have. I tend to budget higher to ensure we have those funds available.”
While the agency strives to keep children in the custody of their families, placements in foster homes can make expenses grow rapidly, she said. The per-diem rate for foster care starts at $21 a day and goes up to $84 a day for foster homes certified in Marion County, and can climb to $300 per day for placements in residential facilities secured through a network of agencies.
“I hope we’re not going to expend that amount,” she said.
“Right now, when it comes to revenue, we tend to budget low because we have to prepare for possible impending state budget cuts. We do best with what we have, and we look at historical trends, as well.”
Marla Hobson, who’s been an intake investigator for Marion County Children Services since July 2010, said alternative response makes working with families to alleviate child neglect easier and more likely to succeed than traditional response.
“The families are a little more responsive,” she said. “The huge difference between alternative and traditional is with traditional response we have to go out within 24 hours, knock on the door, say ‘We have allegations you’re an alleged perpetrator.’ There’s the labeling with the traditional response. With alternative response we have the option to contact them by phone. Being able to contact them by phone, letting them know they can take a deep breath. Nobody likes getting a phone call, let alone us knocking on their door. It’s a less-abrasive approach. No labels. So that’s a little bit of a breather for the families, especially if they’ve had previous involvement with us. Maybe they had a bad experience. We can smooth it out on the phone.”
The agency continues to employ traditional response for all sexual abuse allegations and other reports that involve the court system, such as drug felonies and domestic violence cases.
She said alternative response is used in neglect cases such as the home is dirty or has no utility service or no food, “just a lot of the basic needs.”
Instead of investigating with the objective of determining a perpetrator, the case worker offers to work with the family; “we may be able to help you, we may be able to pay your electric bill. We can stay involved with the family without court involvement. Traditional response, if we can’t resolve the issues, we have to file a complaint with family court.”
Alternative response also provides the agency with more days to work with the family than does traditional response, 45 rather than 30, and the 45 can be extended to 60. “If at that time we still have concerns that aren’t being addressed and the family doesn’t want to do a family service plan with us,” the agency can switch its “pathway” from alternative to traditional, Hobson said.
The agency gives the family a family service plan for members to fill out, listing objectives they feel will help the family and actions they will take to accomplish those objectives, she said.
“We provide them with suggestions, but we want them to take the initiative to complete it and fill it out; what the family has decided to do, not the agency. It’s them letting us know, ‘I know I can do this. This is how I can reach my goals.’
“The rapport we’re building with our families is amazing,” she said. “When I see one of my families if I stop at Walmart, you have kids come up and hug you. That’s a good feeling. What better feeling can you get than that?”