CINCINNATI -- Hamilton County's Department of Job and Family Services lost nearly $210,000 in funding this year that could have helped its over-burdened children's services division.
Hamilton County JFS , in fact, was the only one of 85 county agencies in Ohio that didn't get any money at all through a state "visitation incentive fund." Ohio Department of Job and Family Services created the fund to try to increase the number of children and parents involved in the child welfare system who are visited at least once every 30 days.
"Visitation with families and children is the foundation of child welfare practice," Ohio JFS spokeswoman Angela Terez said in an email to WCPO. "It's vital to assessing the safety, permanency and well-being of children and families."
But because Hamilton County failed to document visits with at least 65 percent of children and parents involved in child welfare cases every 30 days during the time the incentive program was in place, the county didn't get any of the incentive money it could have received.
Despite the state's official numbers, the vast majority of children and parents were visited in a timely manner, said Hamilton County Job and Family Services Director Moira Weir.
The problem is many of the county's caseworkers are way behind on the paperwork required to document those visits, she said. That documentation is how the state determined which counties got funding.
"We're better than what would be a point-in-time perspective," Weir said. "When you're balancing seeing families and being in the home, the paperwork tends to take a backseat. The documentation sometimes doesn't get the priority."
That explanation did not satisfy Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune.
Portune said Weir could have approached the county's three commissioners with a request for funding to get the documentation entered to prove that caseworkers are doing a better job than the state's numbers reflect.
"For us to get zero dollars is not acceptable at all," Portune said. "Whether it's $200,000 or $2 million, it's money that we need, and the outcome is not acceptable."
Portune and his fellow commissioners had harsh words for the state, too.
'A tragic outcome'
"By doing this kind of stuff, all the state is doing is compounding the harm that has been visited on local governments by the state's failure to fund properly, by the state's cutbacks of the local government fund and by the state's Medicaid modernization, which really is the state getting out of the business that it should be doing," Portune said.
Commissioners Chris Monzel and Dennis Deters both noted that Ohio typically ranks 50th out of 50 states when it comes to funding for children's services.
"It's a problem because we're dealing with a lack of funding with the state and significant changes in how we're going to have to pay for these services," Deters said.
Monzel noted that Hamilton County relies on the local children's services levy to fund the vast majority of the department's important work.
"We were disappointed that we did fall short," he said of the incentive funding. "However we are trying to serve all the children of families within Hamilton County as best we can."
State officials already know that local governments are "underfunded and understaffed," Portune said.
"They need to help us and not play these games with local governments that only compound the harm and increase the anxiety level and the stress on people who are already overly stressed and over anxious," he said. "In two respects, it is a tragic outcome."
In a memo dated Oct. 6, 2016, Dan Shook, the assistant deputy director of the Ohio JFS Office of Families and Children, wrote that the goal of the visitation incentive fund was to "increase Ohio's ability to be in substantial conformity with visitation standards for round three of the Child and Family Service Review." That review is a "multi-year quality improvement process designed to ensure that states are conforming with federal requirements and to help states help children and families achieve positive outcomes," Terez said.
The state reduced funding that would normally go to counties by $3 million and then gave counties the chance to earn back the money by reaching specific targets for their visits with children and parents.
To get all of the money counties were eligible for, county caseworkers had to visit 90 percent or more of children and parents every 30 days. Counties could get a portion of the money they were eligible to receive if caseworkers visited at least 65 percent of children and parents every 30 days.
'The program was successful'
Counties could get even more money if they showed a pattern of visiting at least 90 percent of children or parents. They could also get more money if they improved their visitation rates when compared to the same quarter in the previous year and when the counties' percentage increase was greater than the median increase of all counties.
Bottom line: It was complicated. But it wasn't a pop quiz.
County JFS officials knew how they would be measured and when the state would collect the data, Terez said.
The first three-month period that was measured for the program began Oct. 1, 2015 and ended Dec. 31, 2015. Counties were given a month to enter the data from their caseworkers' visits, and the results for that quarter were calculated Feb. 2, 2016, according to Shook's memo.
The second three-month period went from Jan. 1, 2016 to March 31, 2016. Again, counties were given a month to enter the data for those visits, and the results were calculated on May 2, 2016.
Shook hailed the experiment as a statewide success, noting:
• "84 of the 85 public children services agencies visited at least 65 percent of parents or children and received some incentive funding.
• 59 of the 85 agencies met or exceeded 90 percent of visits for both children and parents.
• 28 agencies were high performers for the child population, and 16 agencies were high performers for the adult population.
• 72 of the 85 agencies received more funding under the visitation incentive program than they would have through standard … funding."
"The program was successful," Terez wrote in an email response to WCPO's questions. "Both data quality and visitation improved significantly during the incentive period."
Butler and Clermont counties both got more than 100 percent of their incentive dollars under the program. Warren County didn't get all the money it could have, but it got the majority of funds available to it.
Cuyahoga and Franklin counties -- two other major, metropolitan counties in the state -- received at least some of their incentive money in each of the two quarters.
More work, less money
Weir said the parent visitation numbers look low for Hamilton County partly because the county has a philosophy of keeping parents on the case file even if they are in prison or can't be found.
Caseworkers can't visit every parent under that philosophy, she said. Other Ohio counties take those parents out of the mix, making it easier to reach the state and federal goals, she said.
Hamilton County also has higher caseloads and less funding than the agencies in Cleveland or Columbus, Weir said.
In Hamilton County, for example, the average caseworker has 15 ongoing cases and 32 "intake" cases, based on calls that the county receives regarding an allegation of abuse or neglect, said Brian Gregg, the chief communications officer for Hamilton County JFS.
Cuyahoga County caseworkers, in comparison, have an average of 11 "intake" cases and 15 "ongoing," Gregg said. Clermont caseworkers average nine "intake" cases and nine "ongoing," while Butler caseworkers average 12 "intake" cases each and 10 for "ongoing," he said.
Hamilton County's cases also have become increasingly complex as the heroin epidemic tears apart more and more families, Weir said.
"By the time we touch our families, they've been living in a very chaotic, traumatic environment that takes a lot of resources, and it's very complex," Weir said. "Parents are trafficking their kids for heroin. We've got kids helping their parents shoot up to keep them in the home."
Hamilton County has been trying to implement a "paperless" system, where caseworkers can document their visits using iPads so they don't have to deal with paperwork back at the office, Weir said.
But some parents and guardians aren't comfortable with that, she said, and they want paper receipts to show that a visit happened. Some caseworkers aren't comfortable with paperless systems either, she said.
Monzel stressed that Hamilton County JFS is trying to make the paperless system work better.
"I think we see the vast majority," Weir said. "We're seeing the vast majority of the kids."
Hamilton County has had great success and has won incentive funding in other areas, Weir noted.
These kids need the community's help
Compared to last fiscal year, for example, Hamilton County nearly doubled its number of adoptions or permanent placements for children age 9 and older. The agency went from finding permanent placements for 21 children who were 9 or older during the 2015 fiscal year to finding permanent placements for 39 children who were 9 or older during the 2016 fiscal year.
Hamilton County got $117,799.95 in incentive funding for that increase this year, Gregg said. That was up from $6,500 the previous year.
Monzel applauded those results and said the county is working on ways to improve other results, too.
By the end of this year or early next year, he said, county officials hope to have a "dashboard" of important children's services data that is easy to find on the Hamilton County JFS website.
That's a change that Holly Schlaack, a former Hamilton County caseworker, has been pushing county officials to make.
Schlaack is the founder of a nonprofit called Invisible Kids Project and an advocate for kids in foster care. She wants the community to become more aware and more involved.
"Numbers like these are critically important because they tell a story that invisible kids in the system cannot tell," Schlaack said in an email to WCPO. "These numbers are also public record and should be easily accessible by taxpayers. Challenges facing children's services are too big to be managed only by system leaders and elected officials. They require community engagement."
Schlaack said she believes that educating the public is the first step toward making improvements.
"Transparency, accountability, and solution-driven dialog are allies," she said. "Not enemies."
Weir argued that funding must be part of the solution, too.
"Kids coming into care are up 19 percent. Funding is down 17 percent," she said. "Any day you're going to find something wrong here."
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty .