Hamilton County JFS likely to receive $2 million in additional funding

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - The Hamilton County Department of Job and Family Services has requested two million dollars in additional funding from the county.

The request was laid out earlier in the month in a memo to the county administrator.

"Hamilton County Job and Family Services' Children's Services Division has experienced caseloads of a far more complex nature over the past few years. This community is a microcosm of the nation, which is experiencing much the same, with research increasingly validating the link between severe child abuse and the economic downturn. Much like the rest of the nation, the county's child welfare agency is also experiencing increased public scrutiny, resulting in questions about decision making, customer service and the role lower revenues and staff cutbacks have played in case results."

The money would allow the agency to hire more caseworkers, supervisors and case reviewers.

"I am committed to improvements that not only make us better, but make us accountable and transparent to Hamilton County residents," JFS director Moira Weir said in the memo to county leaders. "Some of these will obviously require your budgetary approval and financial assistance. "

The funding would come from 28 million dollars that have accumulated in the Children's Services Levy fund balance. The money has been set aside for a possible fine the agency may have to pay for alleged bookkeeping discrepancies a few years back. Officials at JFS say the concerns raised by a state audit revolve around the way the department used earmarked funds.

"While this balance has been reserved for a potential settlement concerning the JFS special audit, there is an immediate need for investments within the County's child welfare system.  Assuming current funding levels remain stable and pending a resolution of the Special Audit, there is sufficient balance in the levy fund for the remainder of the current levy period (through 2016); however, the levy would need to be increased in the 2017-2021 levy cycle to keep these efforts in place."

"We're not spending this two million dollars lightly but we think it's really critical to helping kids," Commissioner Greg Hartmann said. "We've resisted doing that in the past. I generally think throwing money at a problem is not going to cure a problem but these really are putting assets towards children."

In the last five years, the JFS budget has been slashed in half. According to a JFS spokesperson the agency had a budget of 105 million dollars in 2007. This year, funding totaled just 57 million despite increasing need for services.

"While it is difficult to determine whether it is the dramatic funding and associated staffing reductions or the increased need for service that is leading to stress on the system and questions about individual case management, the agency's management team has responded by developing a comprehensive improvement plan," Weir stated in her April 5th memo.

In 2007, the agency had about 1,700 workers. That number dropped to 790 employees in 2012.

The public outcry after the deaths of two toddlers whose cases had at one time been handled by JFS has no doubt increased scrutiny of the agency, but it also put a spotlight on a larger problem.

"I think a lot of those cases have highlighted the stress that the system is under," Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann said.

"The huge concern is again, this is a system that's been gutted," ProKids executive director Tracy Cook explained. "When you remove half the resource and increase the people in need that's a dangerous situation."

Tracy Cook and the volunteers at ProKids work as advocates for foster children. Cook says the proposed funding is a start, but it is not the solution.

"It's a drop in the bucket, but very needed and the right step," she said.

"This is not going to be a silver bullet," Hartmann acknowledged. "We can't raise kids across this community but our job is to do our best to take care of kids that are at risk."

"Even when you have everything in place, when you're dealing with a very vulnerable population things can happen," JFS director Moira Weir said.

Weir says ultimately the answer does not lie in one agency alone.

"This is really community issue," Weir said. "There's poverty, there's domestic violence, there's substance abuse, there's mental health issues, there's oftentimes parenting issues and behavioral issues so there are lots of things that contribute to these cases."

The memo from the agency lays out how the money would be spent.

One million will go to pay for additional staff including case workers and transportation aids.

Five hundred thousand dollars would go to contracted services to assist with parental assessments, supportive services and identifying risk factors associated with a parent's capacity to protect their children long term.

The agency also proposes to add senior level management that would help staff with oversight and review of casework, policies, and practices. Prior to the recession the agency states there were a number of assistant director positions providing oversight to the various major program areas.

The agency would reinstate quality assessment unit that was eliminated in past staff reductions which would add oversight of caseworkers.

Agency officials say they are currently in the process of interviewing candidates for the manager of the unit.

The memo also states the agency plans to explore a pilot program in Franklin County called SAFE TEAMS that makes use of daily group decision making sessions for difficult cases.

Finally, JFS hopes to improve customer service and public education by improving response time to phone calls and email

"We're at the level of crisis here in the county that we've got to dedicate some funds to go specifically to case workers to make sure that kids are as safe as possible and we're doing as much as we can," Hartmann said.

Hartmann says JFS leaders are no longer looking for funding to help pay for public relations efforts or consulting which had been mentioned in the April 5th memo. Todd Portune is also in support of increasing funding for the agency. Chris Monzel says he is still undecided but is leaning towards supporting the funding pending further review of the request.

Commissioners will discuss the proposed funding increase next week.

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