CINCINNATI — In the last year, 14 children in Hamilton County have died. Job and Family Services said eight of those deaths were due to confirmed abuse, while six are still under investigation.
Matt Damschroder, director of Ohio Job and Family Services, answered questions about the number of children deaths in 2021 under his Hamilton County team’s watch. JFS said five of the 14 deaths in 2021 were open cases at the time of death.
“When these things have happened, I meet with a team and look at it and figure out what more we can do,” Damschroder said. “But, it’s ultimately a very complex system.”
The most recent child death in Hamilton County was Casey Sams, a 5-month-old whose parents face murder charges connected to his death. Shakayla Sams and Donte Farrier, both 19, are charged with the abuse of their 2-year-old and the death of Sams.
Juvenile court records show as recently as April 2020, JFS, ProKids and Juvenile Court were actively monitoring Shakayla Sams' care of her 2-year-old child. The child remains in the hospital due to a lacerated pancreas and malnutrition. Both children were in their mother's care at the time of Sams' death.
“In a lot of these situations, there’s not one specific thing, not one particular lever we can face," Damschroder said. "The children services base is a team, so there’s the social workers, there’s the courts, there’s law enforcement, there’s teachers — there’s all those things."
Damschroder would not say what commonalities he has noticed in those cases citing pending police investigations and court cases. Hamilton County JFS declined to comment due to the same reasons.
"We’re stymied by the ongoing case," spokesperson Jim Tinker wrote. "I look forward to when we’re free to discuss operations and outcomes. Once again, Children Services records do not constitute “public records” and are not subject to the Ohio Public Records Act. Records of child abuse or neglect investigations under ORC 2151.421 and ORC 5153.17 are 'records the release of which is prohibited by state law' under ORC 149.43(A)(I)(v)."
A 2021 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report found Ohio is not in compliance with any national performance criteria.
“Across the board, the state and the counties are working to rectify all those issues, and there’s corrective action plans that we all work,” Damschrode said.
In November 2020, the Children’s Services Transformation Advisory Council issued a final report of 37 recommendations made to improve children’s services in Ohio. Damschroder was appointed interim director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services by Gov. Mike DeWine in March 2021 and was named permanent director in July 2021.
“These are ultimately county processes that happen, but what we look at is what more we can do at the state to provide resources, technical assistance, you know, not just funding, but what can we do from a technology standpoint,” Damschroder said.
Damschroder said he’d like to install artificial intelligence that can sift through reports to identify the most severe cases of abuse and identify family members that could provide care.
“There’s never going to be closure in a sense of we have solved all the problems,” Damschroder said. “The hope I can bring is we’re not going to stop and our commitment is every day to make sure we’re addressing each new kind of problem that pops up.”