Speaker Larry Householder is making history with a bold proposal to double Ohio’s current county allocation for children services — standing up for children across the state who experience trauma, spend birthdays away from home in foster care and grow up with reduced prospects for employment and stability.

Ohio’s children services system has long been in crisis: the scourge of addiction bringing thousands more children into the foster care system, creating unmanageable caseloads for frontline workers, creating significant placement challenges and crippling county budgets. The speaker saw the devastation of children essentially raising themselves when he visited homes in his district, which also includes Coshocton and part of Licking County. He knew he had to do something to improve their chance for a better life.

With the House version of the biennial budget, he has done just that.

In a remarkable move, Householder matched Gov. Mike DeWine's previous proposal to now add $60 million per year to the State Child Protection Allocation — dedicated funds that go directly to county children services agencies to meet the needs of abused and neglected children — thereby doubling the state’s 2018-19 total allocation. That investment has long earned Ohio the reputation for underfunding child protection and relying too heavily on local dollars to make up the difference.

In Summit County, among 51 Ohio counties with a voter-approved children services levy, the opioid epidemic has taken its toll. Half as many more children are waiting to be adopted than just two years ago. Local funds picked up $33 million (59 percent) of total spending last year, while the state contributed just $5 million. In counties with older or less generous levies, or with no levy at all, the state’s contribution barely helps them meet their mandates under the law.

The cost of supporting the rising number of children in foster care has created a system in crisis. Between 2013 and 2018, placement costs alone for children in foster care across Ohio increased by $109 million, nearly two-thirds of which was paid for with local dollars because the state has underfunded our system for too long. The increased spending doesn’t even account for the additional costs of our frontline caseworkers — half of whom meet the threshold for post-traumatic stress disorder because of what they are seeing in the field — or the range of services our county agencies provide.

To illustrate these challenges, the Public Children Services Association of Ohio recently published “Stories from the Field: The Need for Reform” (available at pcsao.org). It offers seven moving examples from across Ohio of the challenges of hard-to-place youth and paints a picture of what county agencies face day in and day out.

Coming as it does during National Foster Care Month, the speaker’s proposal is not only a welcome solution to a severe crisis in foster care, but it puts us in a solid position to begin reforming our system so that in the long term we can start seeing better outcomes for children and families while saving taxpayer dollars.

In my 20 years of public service and advocacy on children’s issues, I have never seen such dedication to meeting the needs of Ohio’s abused and neglected children. For the first time, Ohio’s foster kids are being given hope and the attention they deserve by Ohio’s leaders, and we couldn’t be more grateful to Speaker Householder and Gov. DeWine. Together, the governor and the speaker have shown through their bold actions that Ohio’s children finally have real champions on their side. Now it’s up to the Ohio Senate to join them. If passed, this budget will herald a new opportunity to reform a broken system, but more important, it will stabilize families and save children’s lives.

 

Sausser is the executive director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio.