CINCINNATI -- A teenage boy named Gage just celebrated his second birthday in a row in the custody of Hamilton County Children’s Services.
Gage’s older brothers brought him a cake at the group home where he lives -- a marble sheet cake from Sam’s Club decorated with “Happy Sweet 16 Gage” and colorful frosting balloons -- big enough to share with everyone there.
But as great as that was, what Gage really wanted was news that he soon would be leaving the group home to live with family.
“Every roommate I’ve ever had has told me I cry in my sleep. I’m tired of it,” he told WCPO, which is withholding his last name to protect his privacy. “I’m tired of being embarrassed when I wake up because my roommate heard me cry that night. I’m tired of having nightmares about where I’m going to wake up next.”
Gage is one of the more than 3,000 children that Hamilton County Children’s Services has in custody. The kids are there because their parents or guardians were accused of abuse or neglect or because the children’s behavior made it unsafe for them to stay at home.
The average length of stay for children in custody is 540 days, according to a Hamilton County Job and Family Services spokesman. That includes kids who have been in county custody even longer than Gage, with hopes of getting adopted, and also the children who stay for just a few days.
What’s different about Gage’s case is that he has a grandma and grandpa who have been fighting for custody of him since shortly after he was removed from his father’s house in August of 2015. But after scores of motions and working with three different lawyers, they appear to be no closer to bringing their grandson home.
“He’s been robbed,” said Karen Lapping, Gage’s grandmother. “He should be playing baseball or taking art classes.”
Instead Gage has spent the past two years bouncing from a residential mental health treatment facility to different group homes, sometimes hurting himself or getting into fights, he said, often worrying about the medication he takes and always wondering where he could be and what he could be doing instead.
The case offers a look at the child welfare system from the inside. It also underscores how important it is to make responsible decisions for kids in the system as quickly as possible, said Tracey Feild, director and manager of the Child Welfare Strategy Group of The Annie E. Casey Foundation .
Making those decisions, she added, is rarely easy.
“I don’t think this is a particularly unusual case,” Feild said. “But it’s obviously not the best set of circumstances for the youth. Every child needs a family. And a group home is definitely not a family.”
Reunification a priority
The child welfare system is complicated. Every case has challenges, and Gage’s is no exception.
Karen and Ray Lapping said they think their grandson’s case is an example of how a system designed to protect children’s best interests can be warped by adults who don’t follow the law.
County officials said they could not talk about Gage’s case specifically because of the confidentiality required by law. Hamilton County Job and Family Services asked Karen Lapping to sign a waiver of her confidentiality so the agency could answer WCPO’s questions about her involvement in the case. She declined to sign it, based on the advice her lawyer.
As a result, a spokesman for Hamilton County Job could only speak to how the agency generally handles child welfare cases.
“We first try to reunify with the biological parent by providing services that will help them safely parent their children,” Brian Gregg, the department’s chief communications officer, wrote in an email response to WCPO. “If reunification is not possible -- and again, we could try reunification for a couple of years -- we would next try to find ‘kin’ who could care for that child.”
The department defines “kin” as family members or others that have a close relationship with the child and an interest in his or her life. The kin must pass a “home study” that gauges their fitness to care for the child.
Ultimately, Job and Family Services caseworkers don’t decide where a child ends up on their own. A local magistrate or judge makes the decision with information and recommendations from Job and Family Services, lawyers for the parents or anyone else seeking custody and the child’s guardian ad litem, among others. The guardian ad litem, or GAL, is by law appointed to represent the best interests of the child in the case. There are times when the GAL, caseworker and others involved don’t agree on what’s best for the child. The magistrate or judge has the final say.
In Gage’s case, Magistrate Kellie Bley in July committed him to a “Planned Permanent Living Arrangement” with Hamilton County Job and Family Services, according to a Hamilton County Juvenile Court report dated July 10 and obtained by WCPO.
The report said Gage was “unable to function in a family-like setting and must remain in residential or institutional care.”
The Lappings couldn’t disagree more, and they're still fighting for custody. They have another hearing scheduled for September.
‘Hey, you’re not going home’
Karen and Ray Lapping have been married for more than 22 years and have been involved in Gage’s life from the beginning, they said. He has an older brother, Christopher, who was born two years before Gage. He also has a half-brother, Jacob, who is about five years older. WCPO is withholding their last names, too, to protect Gage’s privacy.
Although Karen Lapping is not biologically related to Jacob, she has been a part of the lives of all three boys since they were little. They call her “Grandma Bubbles.”
“Every time they would come over -- they spent most weekends with us -- they always needed a bath,” Karen Lapping said. “So they would take a bubble bath.”
She and her husband had custody of Gage and Christopher in the past when their mother was unable to care for them. Eventually the boys went to live with their father and his girlfriend, an arrangement that didn’t work so well for Gage, he said.
WCPO repeatedly requested an interview with Gage’s father through his lawyer, but he did not respond to the request. He had been trying to regain custody of Gage, according to records obtained by WCPO. But the Hamilton County Juvenile Court report filed July 10 stated that Gage’s “return to the home would be contrary to the child’s best interest and welfare.”
Gage said he ran away in early 2014 because he was afraid he would get in big trouble for his report card. The police intervened and asked Gage if he was feeling suicidal, he told WCPO.
“I said yes,” he said. “At first it was kind of not true. Then a month and a half later, my mom died. I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.”
Gage acknowledged he became increasingly argumentative, fighting at school and arguing with his dad. The final straw was a big fight with his stepmom.
“She started slapping me and punching me in the face. I got mad and lost control,” Gage said. “I put my hands around her throat and started to choke her. I was actually going to kill my stepmom.”
She got loose from Gage, he said, and kicked him in the groin before calling the police.
“I went with the cops, and they said, ‘Hey, you’re not going home. Probably never will,’” Gage said.
He was 13 at the time, he said, and started out staying at a residential mental health treatment facility. From there, he went to a group home and eventually moved to his current group home after problems with the first one.
Christopher, who is now 18, and Jacob, who is 21, started visiting him there several months ago.
“As soon as my brothers started coming on campus, my mood stabilized,” Gage said. “Everything was OK again.”
Judging kin’s fitness
Karen and Ray Lapping said they know about the problems Gage has had, his threats of suicide and his attempts to hurt himself. They love him and want him to come live with them anyway, they said.
“We’re his only hope,” Ray Lapping told WCPO. “If he would go back to that house (with his father and stepmom), it just would be bad. We have to save him. That’s it.”
Gage’s older brothers live with the Lappings now. Gage told WCPO during three separate interviews that he wants to live there, too.
“That woman has done everything in her power to get me,” Gage said of his grandma. “When my mom couldn’t take care of me, she was the one trying. She has a giant collage of me as I grew up. She made a turtle costume for me just for a school play. It was just me and my class. And she went all out on the costume. She made that costume as it if were like a prop for a movie.”
A Hamilton County “kinship assessor” conducted a home study on the Lappings in June 2016. The assessor wrote that she did “not dispute” that the Lappings “dearly love Gage,” according to a copy of the home study obtained by WCPO. But her recommendation was that the couple should not receive custody.
One of the reasons was because Karen Lapping was charged with interference with custody in May 2014 after Gage had run away again.
The home study quoted a police report that said Karen Lapping “picked up her grandson on 05/12/14 and kept him for over 24 hours without notifying his father or the police. The grandson was entered as a critical missing due to his age. Numerous police resources were used to assist in locating the missing child.”
The police report asserted that Lapping “had no intentions on notifying the custodial father or police until the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office knocked on her door looking for the child the following day.”
It also asserted that Lapping had a history of “interfering” with her son’s custody of Gage.
Lapping said she had every intention of notifying the police and her son that Gage was safe with her. But he was scared, hungry and exhausted when he got to her house, she said, and she wanted to take some time to understand why he ran away.
The home study also stated that Lapping “struggled with understanding the mental health issues that Gage is experiencing,” and the kinship assessor wrote that: “In my opinion, she is causing even more of a riff (sic) between Gage and his father than what was there previously.”
Lapping was shocked when she read that conclusion, she said, because the kinship assessor told her in person that she had no problem with Gage living with her and her husband.
The home study also makes clear that Megan Shahan-Beck, the guardian ad litem appointed to represent Gage’s best interests, was opposed to placing Gage with the Lappings.
It quoted an email from Shahan-Beck that stated: “Gage flip flops about seeing and living with grandma, dad and the hospital. He is the most comfortable in a hospital/mental health residential setting.”
Nationwide, group homes are rarely the best place for teenagers, said Feild of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“It’s very difficult for a teenager, who is supposed to be developing independent skills and supposed to be moving toward independence to live in a highly controlled environment, which is what a group home is and has to be to manage a group of teenagers,” she said. “It goes against the very nature of what a teenager is all about. When they are restricted by so many rules, they almost always rebel against those rules.”
As much as Karen Lapping disagrees with the home study’s recommendation, there is a paragraph that she has highlighted in letters to Hamilton County Job and Family Services Director Moira Weir.
It’s under the heading “Interview or Observation of Children,” and it stated in part:
“Gage started out by saying his grandmother treats him with respect and I respect her. She does not abuse me like my dad and step-mom.”
The paragraph continued: “Gage stated that his step-mother is evil, abusive and she ‘really makes me mad and dad is also abusive.’ He stated he is trying to work on his anger and sees his therapist once a week and is also on medication.”
Karen Lapping said she couldn’t possibly know everything about Gage’s mental health or medications because she hasn’t been included in the team meetings that discuss his case or his care.
But she took care of his medical needs many times when he was little, she said, and she could take him to therapy and doctor appointments just as well as someone at the group home could.
She and her husband are angry that the guardian ad litem has reached conclusions about Karen Lapping without meeting her in person or talking with her by phone.
The Ohio Supreme Court’s Rule 48 requires a guardian ad litem to conduct his or her own research to reach conclusions about what is in the best interests of a child, said Kimberly Helfrich, director of the GAL division for Hamilton County. But Helfrich could not speak to any specifics regarding Gage’s case because of confidentiality rules.
Hamilton County commissioners couldn’t speak about the specifics of the case either. Karen Lapping has appeared before them over and over at public meetings in recent months, asking them to intervene and help her.
Commissioner Denise Driehaus said she knows generally that Weir and her staff at Hamilton County Job and Family Services are feeling overwhelmed because the opioid epidemic is pushing a growing number of kids into county custody.
Even so, she said, the agency is doing its best to keep kids safe and provide them with permanency.
When Driehaus was a state lawmaker, she pushed for changes in state law that would increase the financial assistance that “kin” get for taking responsibility for children in the child welfare system.
“The irony is that we know that having a child go with kin is better for the child, in the short term and in the long term,” she said. “The challenge is that we are providing more money for people that are fostering kids when we want to incentivize kinship care.”
Commissioner Chris Monzel said he couldn’t speak specifically about Gage’s case either, but he understands Lapping’s frustration.
“Here’s the county commissioners that have JFS, but then you have the juvenile court system and you’re getting ping-ponged back and forth,” he said.
The life Gage wants
It’s a big problem that family members such as the Lappings feel that they have nowhere to go to complain when they believe the system isn’t working in the best interests of children they love, said Holly Schlaack, a former Hamilton County caseworker and founder of a nonprofit called Invisible Kids Project that advocates for kids in foster care.
“There’s nowhere for people to go,” she said. “The judges won’t talk to anybody about a specific case. What are people supposed to do?”
From everything Schlaack knows about the case and the Lappings, she doesn’t understand why Gage hasn’t been placed with his grandparents already.
“Are we concerned that he’s going to be abused or neglected by her? I think that answer is clearly no,” Schlaack said. “That’s the only reason the system is involved in these kids’ lives. And if that’s not an issue, we need to get out.”
That would be better not only for Gage, she said, but also for county taxpayers.
The average daily cost for group homes is $186 per day, said Gregg, the Hamilton County Job and Family Services spokesman. For residential mental health treatment, the daily cost is anywhere from $274 to $391 per day, depending on the facility, he said.
Gage has been in both settings over the past two years. He does receive Social Security survivors’ benefits because of his mom’s death. Now that he’s in county custody, the county keeps that money to help defray the costs of his care.
Karen Lapping said she thinks that money should be used to pay for art lessons that Gage said he wants to take or other extracurricular activities.
Instead, Gage said he’s going to work at a local fast-food restaurant to make some extra money while he attends high school. He hopes to work as many as 38 hours each week.
It will help him pay for art classes, he said, and it will keep him away from the group home.
“I would just love to live my life like I was supposed to. Live my life like a kid,” Gage said. “Not a kid that has no place to go.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may . To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.