Editorial: Our child welfare laws need updating badly

NOTE: The number of children currently in Hamilton County custody has been corrected. That number is more than 2,000. More than 3,000 children have been in custody at some point in 2017.

Kids need to be with their parents.

That’s age-old wisdom. And – much of the time – it’s true.

But what if dad’s a heroin addict?

What if mom’s violent?

What if a loving family member – but not a parent – is ready and able to provide a safe, nurturing home for a child whose mom and dad aren’t up for the responsibilities of parenting?

Does our system recognize what’s best for the children in these situations?

Two recent WCPO.com stories described cases where, unfortunately, it appears that hasn’t happened. The stories pointed to a legal framework for child welfare that’s badly in need of a re-examination and updating.

Lucy May detailed the case of Gage, a 16-year-old boy who has lived in the custody of Hamilton County, in residential treatment and group home settings, for two years. He’s spending a chunk of his mid-teen years in county custody, despite having a grandmother and a grandfather who love him enough to want him to live with them. And he wants to live with them.

READ: Lost boy: One teen's two-year wait in the child welfare system 

Sounds like a good arrangement. But county juvenile court has ruled, bewilderingly, that Gage “must remain in residential or institutional care.”

In the other case, Lisa Bernard-Kuhn reported that 4-year-old Hope (not her real name) will be taken away from her grandparents, where she has lived and thrived since she was born.

READ: Raising Hope: A family's fight to do what's best for a growing toddler amid the heroin crisis 

Hope’s biological father, a recovering heroin addict, unexpectedly filed for legal custody after being largely absent from Hope’s life since her birth. Juvenile court awarded him custody despite his documented history of drug use and his criminal record. And they did so despite the fact that Hope’s home with her grandparents is loving and stable.

Both of these cases are being appealed.

They both point to a child welfare system that badly needs re-examination by county and state lawmakers.

The state laws that control child custody issues are outdated. Ohio courts rely on case law from 140 years ago – 1877 – as the foundation for custody decisions.

Judges also rely on case law from 1977 -- 40 years ago.

Since then, the number and complexity of child welfare cases has changed dramatically. The number of single moms parenting has escalated. The cases have become far more complex.

And most recently, the heroin epidemic has created something of a lost generation whose moms and dads struggle with addiction, are in and out of rehab and jail and need to get their own lives together before they can be responsible for the lives of their children.

The number of kids in foster care in Ohio grew by 10 percent to more than 15,000 in one year alone, 2016.  In the cases of children under the age of one, most involve parents who have used heroin or other opioids.

In Hamilton County alone, more than 2,000 children are in county custody, living in a group home or institution.

These numbers point to a ripple effect that we will be dealing with for another generation.

They demand that our county and state lawmakers deliver the money and manpower to effectively handle these cases and also undertake a thorough re-examination of our laws to make sure they are responsive to today’s reality.

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