By Portsmouth Daily Times
June 30, 2023
July 1 marks a full year since Scioto County Children’s Services became part of the Department of Job and Family Services. It was a move taken by county leadership after the deaths of multiple children and reports that the old Children’s Services was broken.
Director Tammy Moore Morton reported to the Scioto County Commissioners June 29 about the progress that has been made. She outlined the continuing challenges of overhauling the agency to better serve families and keep children safe.
“Overall, I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Morton said. “There’s been so much to learn, so much to analyze, so much help to ask for, so much to endure, and so much change.
“We are in a much better place than we were a year ago.”
Morton said, realistically, it will take the agency three to five years to be “where we need to be. We are moving a mountain one rock at a time. Today, the mountain is on fire.”
But for now, there is positive progress being made.
Kids in Care
As of June 29, there were 344 children in the care of Scioto County Children’s Services. Some of these children are housed outside of the county. Placing children in care costs more than $7 million per year. On average, there are 350 children in the care of Children’s Services, which is a reduction from the 407 average number of children in care the previous year.
Costs per case can vary, depending on where the child is placed and “the specific needs the children in our custody have – and this can vary greatly.”
Children’s Services received 166 referrals for services in May. Most of those referrals, largely from school systems and hospitals, were for suspected neglect, followed by physical abuse.
“The main category is neglect and we average 77 monthly referrals for neglect,” Morton said. “The next would be physical abuse, we average 65 referrals for that.”
The average number for sexual abuse referrals is down from 45 cases in March to 22 cases “although one is too many.”
The number of adoptions of children in foster care has increased drastically since the merger. There were 14 adoptions in the last year.
“We currently have six adoptions scheduled to take place in July and we have another 14 that are awaiting their hearing dates,” Morton said.
She credited the hard work of the Children’s Services adoptions workers and the Scioto County Prosecutor’s Office for the increase in the number of kids being adopted.
“Thank goodness the prosecutor offered us help and in doing that,” she said. “That’s why we’re seeing a lot of these major movements.”
In November 2022, Scioto County voters approved a 3-mill, 10-year tax levy to fund Children’s Services. That money has recently started to be disbursed to the agency.
“Recently the new levy funds have started coming in and that has allowed us to maintain our budget … without operating in a deficit,” Morton said.
However, the budget for Children’s Services can be fickle depending on the needs of the children being served. Moore said the monthly variance could well tip the agency into the red again.
“Unfortunately, this is an expense we have very little control over.”
Custody removals have remained consistent at six to eight removals a month, with an average number of 10 children affected.
In the year since the merger, the total cost of placing children in foster care has been $7,042,029.71.
“When you set those numbers aside and you put a child, that changes everything and it changes the motivation and direction and passion.”
Maintaining staffing levels has been an ongoing issue. After the merger, many Children’s Services staff left the agency.
“When major departments change like that, it’s not uncommon to see turnover,” Morton said. “But this is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”
It’s been difficult to stop the bleeding, as far as losing staff and not being able to maintain levels needed to serve families. In March, a third of Children’s Services workforce left the agency.
“This work is very hard and it’s not for everybody, that’s for sure,” Morton said. The director added a top priority is to stabilize staffing levels and get workers trained and equipped.
Stepping in to assist are other counties that are currently home to children in Scioto County Children’s Services’ care. For now, caseworkers in four of those counties are taking over the home visits. This gives Scioto County the chance to get trained and equipped to better serve those children.
In addition, a consultant is currently working on a procedures and policies manual that hasn’t been updated since the 1990s.
‘It’s quite shocking to think that it all happened a year ago’
Morton openly says the merger of Scioto County Children’s Services with Job and Family Services is the hardest thing she’s ever done. The stress has affected her, as well as the staff of both Children’s Services and Job and Family Services.
It’s been a long process, one that began two years ago, according to Scioto County Commissioner Bryan Davis.
“We had to make decisions based on what we saw on the ground,” Davis said. “We didn’t hire a captain to steer this ship, we hired a general.”
Commissioner Scottie Powell said it’s hard to believe it’s been a year since the merger became official.
“It’s quite shocking to think that it all happened a year ago,” he said. “Really the impact we’re seeing … just the adoptions, that’s the first time I’ve heard that. It’s amazing.
“We’ve also got to thank the JFS side … they know that side of the house needs the support right now. We thank the whole team. They’ve been outstanding and welcoming in the merger.”
Commissioner Cathy Coleman pointed to the spirit of helpfulness in the Children’s Services culture and the fact four other counties were taking on some of the home visits outside of Scioto County.
“That’s just unheard of and I’m really, truly thankful for those folks,” Coleman said.
Children’s Services 2.0
It may be an uphill battle to change the perception of the new Children’s Services from that of the one from year’s past. It’s understandable. The former agency did not have the same tools Scioto County Children’s Services 2.0, namely the merger, new leadership, staff training, and the funds provided by the levy. Even the physical location of the agency has changed and shares space with Job and Family Services on Court Street.
But the stigma exists. As services continue to improve and progress, maybe that will become a thing of the past.
“Unfortunately, people tend to judge based on the distant past and some people hold onto that. We ask the public to hold on and evaluate on what’s being done now,” Davis said. “In speaking with the pubic, I hear it. I’ve heard it: ‘You people did the right thing.’”