CINCINNATI -- Every year the situation seems to worsen: Hamilton County Children's Services serves more children but the agency's yearly budget to help those kids stays stagnant or shrinks.
Just a decade ago the agency served nearly 13,000 children with a budget of $88 million. In 2014, that same agency had a budget of $80 million and helped more than 16,100 kids.
Children's Services is tasked with helping abused, neglected and abandoned children in the county. Workers make sure those children are safe in their homes; they also help to place some of them in counseling, foster care, long-term treatment and relatives’ homes.
The agency, which hasn't had an increase in levy funding for two decades, will again present a new levy request to voters in November. Whatever they ask, the levy request will come on the heels of the agency’s deadliest year for children since 2010. Three children with cases at Hamilton County Children's Services died from abuse or neglect last year.
Former Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann, who stepped down from his position in December, called the agency – and its lack of funding – one of the greatest challenges he dealt with in office.
“Everybody you talk to will tell you our Children's Services is inadequately funded,” Hartmann said. He voted to keep the agency's levy the same on the 2011 ballot because he didn’t want to present voters with a tax increase during an economic downturn.
Hartmann, a Republican, said he doesn’t regret that vote in 2011 but the agency’s funding situation needs to change soon.
“At some point you’ve got to realize that it’s one of the responsibilities of county government is to make sure it’s adequately funded,” Hartmann said.
First levy increase in two decades?
It’s been 20 years since voters last approved a levy increase for Children's Services in 1996.
Child protection costs the owner of a $100,000 home about $56 every year in Hamilton County and it’s the third most expensive county property levy. The tax brings in about $40 million every year.
The local levy is important because federal and state grants match every dollar the agency gets from county taxpayers, said Moira Weir, the Hamilton County Job and Family Services director. The Job and Family Services department oversees Children's Services.
Weir can rattle off a list of services the county could offer children and their family if the agency were better funded.
The agency could offer substance abuse counseling, in-home mentoring, parenting help and tutoring for kids, or hire nurses to help children manage their medication, Weir said.
All of those services would put more social workers and professionals in the homes of the most at-risk children in Hamilton County more often, she said.
“It’s just anything where we feel we can get more ears and eyes in the home,” Weir said. “It’s more eyes on the family.”
Weir said the agency has had to make some staffing cuts because caseloads have gone up but funding has dropped in some years. The agency no longer employs aides who once helped caseworkers file paperwork or transport children, for example.
“You could have someone who could type notes, who could pick up a child, who could do paperwork filing,” said Grace Muntz, a four-year caseworker veteran at Children's Services who was promoted to a supervisor position this December.
The county does contract with private agencies to help transport children, after doing away with that service for several years during this past levy cycle.
Still, county children service agencies that are well funded have the luxury of employing aides – from nurses to transportation help – that can assist caseworkers, said Scott Britton, the assistant director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio.
“When none of that exists, the caseworker does it all,” Britton said. “Those kind of things, they might sound like fluff or padding, but those are the kinds of positions that really free up caseworkers to do what they’re supposed to be doing, which is to be in the home, supervising the child.”
Weir won’t ultimately decide if Children's Services will ask for more funding. That decision is left up to the three-member Hamilton County Commission, which will vote on a levy for the 2016 ballot once it receives a recommendation from an independent panel, called the tax levy review committee. The commissioners appoint the members of the 11-person levy review committee.
The commissioners are scheduled to make their final vote in July, according to Lisa Webb, who oversees the tax levy committee process for the county.
Hamilton County Commission President Chris Monzel said Children's Services’ dwindling budget is the result of cuts in state and federal funding.
“That’s really driven the budget issues,” Monzel, a Republican, said. “I don’t see that our property taxes going up are going to make up for that shortfall.”
Turnover a Skyrocketing Issue
Caseworker turnover has become another worsening situation at the agency, which employs roughly 240 caseworkers, in recent years.
In 2008, nearly 20 percent of caseworkers employed with Hamilton County left their jobs. By 2014, caseworker turnover skyrocketed to 37 percent and last year more than a third of caseworkers left the agency.
Caseworkers often work the closest with children and their families, visiting them in their home and attending court hearings with them.
That makes their positions at the agency some of the toughest.
“I don’t think I can even describe how emotionally draining it can be,” Muntz, a 26-year-old working at Children Services said of her time there. “There are good days and bad days. The bad days are hard.”
Days when the agency loses a child are some of the worst, Muntz said. Last year, the entire office was shaken by by two high profile cases where a mother beheaded her 3-month-old child and a couple was accused of torturing their toddler to death.
But it might not help that Hamilton County’s worker pay is not competitive with other counties, Weir said.
Montgomery County, which has a similar budget and also serves about 16,000 kids every year, paid their social workers made an average of $50,000 last year.
Hamilton County, meanwhile, paid its social workers $43,600 on average.
“We, generally, in Hamilton County, are not competing well with our counterparts,” Weir said of wages.
In addition to its $80 million budget last year, the county spent an additional $22 million on salaries and benefits for employees at Children's Services. The agency mostly relies on state and federal grants for salaries instead of levy dollars.
Monzel said the commissioners directed a salary study that will look at workers who aren’t getting paid a competitive wage.
“Unfortunately, with the pay scale we have there … we probably struggle keeping people in house because of that,” Monzel said.
$100 Million Saved
There might be a bright spot in funding for Children's Services, even if this year’s levy doesn’t include a tax increase. At last check, the agency had $100 million in the bank.
That money has sat unused for more nearly a decade because of findings from a state and federal government audit of the county Children's Services agency years ago. The audit says the county didn't follow guidelines while spending money on children from 2001 to 2004.
Hamilton County Administrator Christian Sigman said he hopes a settlement will be reached between the governments this year.
He said a financial figure has been discussed but said he couldn’t legally disclose details of the proposed settlement.
“We’re the closest we’ve ever been,” Sigman said on reaching an agreement with the state and federal authorities.
Children's Services has been socking away so much money because the audit initially suggested the county might have to repay more than $1 billion, Sigman said.
If the county does settle this year – and for less than what they have saved up – it could free up money for some of the initiatives Weir said might help the county’s neediest children.
“Can we use those funds? That's something we're going to keep investigating and researching," Monzel said of the $100 million set aside. "It's definitely an opportunity that could help down the road."