Editor’s Note: This story is one in a series of three about the foster care crisis in Ohio.
Last spring, a teen spent a month in Cleveland’s University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. The youth was ready to be discharged, but the mother, working with child welfare oﬃcials, was not able to find a treatment facility and refused to pick up the youth until she could secure a safe option.
Eventually, due to the hospital filing abandonment charges, the Wayne County Juvenile Court placed the teen in the custody of county children services, and hospital oﬃcials brought the youth to the agency oﬃce. With no identified placement, the teen stayed two nights at the agency before custody was returned to the mother. The mother then had to take the child home due to lack of a therapeutic placement. Two days later, police were called and the youth was arrested for domestic violence and stealing the mother’s car. The teen, still waiting for treatment, was taken to juvenile detention.
“I feel so helpless. All [my child] wants to do is to come home and be part of the family, but we can’t safely do that,” said the teen’s mother. She and her child are not being identified to protect their privacy.
“It has been unbelievably diﬃcult to find the appropriate mental health care for my child who is very complex. I know that doesn’t make it easy, but it shouldn’t be that diﬃcult either.
“Someone is going to end up very hurt and [my child] is going to be scarred for life by something she can’t come back from.”
Dr. Ethan Leonard, chief medical oﬃcer for University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, couldn’t discuss the teen’s case because of patient privacy laws.
In general, “at any given time we have at least two or three kids that are in county children services custody,” Leonard said.
“Many have been placed in foster care or a longer-term residential facility and have continued to exhibit behaviors and often will be dropped oﬀ in the emergency department by a foster family or outside residential place with then a refusal to take them home or take them back.”
A shortage of placements and treatment options is not new. But child welfare oﬃcials say it has gotten worse since the COVID pandemic. More youth need intensive and individualized therapy, and a lack of mental health professionals and other staﬀ has caused facilities to reduce services and beds. Some have closed entirely.
“When I first came on board over nine years ago, we barely had to make a dozen phone calls to secure appropriate residential placement. Now, the average is 80 to 100 calls to secure appropriate placement – and it’s not always appropriate,” said Deanna Nichols-Stika, executive director of the Wayne County Children Services Board.
The teen hospitalized for a month before ending up in juvenile detention was denied by 160 (treatment) facilities, she said.
In May, a 15-year-old youth became aggressive with caseworkers in western Ohio’s Greene County after spending two nights on an oﬃce couch. Police were called; the teen was charged and taken to juvenile detention.
“Our workers are not trained to provide the physical care for children in this kind of crisis, and they are not permitted or trained to restrain a youth who is a danger to themselves or others. We are responsible for finding appropriate care for them, but when that care doesn’t exist, they end up at the agency with staﬀ and that’s a problem,” said Beth Rubin, director of Greene County Job and Family Services.
Lana Penney, the county’s children services administrator, said caseworkers were turned down by more than 60 treatment facilities, many out of state.
“Even when we do identify a resource for this child, or any child, it’s months that we’re on a waiting list for that child to get the treatment that they need,” Penney said.
Ohio’s urban centers like Cleveland and Columbus have been hardest hit. One week in June, Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services had 11 foster kids sleeping in its oﬃces. Nine were from the juvenile court system and two had developmental disabilities.
In Franklin County, the number of times a child has stayed in agency oﬃces has doubled for two years in a row. In 2022, there were 90 overnights, an increase from 42 stays in 2021, and up from 21 in 2020.
Child welfare oﬃcials said the uptick coincided with a spike in kids coming into their custody from juvenile court. Like elsewhere, more children with complex issues and a decline in foster families, group homes and facilities to meet their needs are also to blame.
Not surprisingly, problems can arise when kids stay overnight in oﬃces and police get called when youth get frustrated, angry or even violent.
“There are days my stomach hurts, that I’m literally sick to my stomach, knowing that they are going to stay here one more night,” said Amy Wood, associate director of placements for Franklin County Children Services. “It’s heartbreaking for these kids. No one wants them to [have to] stay here.”
The agency has taken several steps to address the issue. It hired a company to provide emergency stabilization services and is working with a local treatment facility to create emergency shelter foster homes to avoid oﬃce stays. In addition, the agency is collaborating with providers to ensure that foster youth and their caretakers have needed services and around-the-clock crisis support.
Portage County Juvenile Judge Patricia J. Smith said that timely treatment is desperately needed.
She said she deals with foster placement issues every day and routinely keeps children in detention when they really need treatment because none can be found.
“I had to hold a young lady in my detention center because we have nowhere to put her. She had delinquent charges, but they are based on mental health issues. She should not be in a detention center. It is absolutely the worst possible alternative for her,” Smith said.
“We could keep more kids in the home if we actually had services immediately available.”
Next article: “It’s sad to me that we’re accepting this as the new normal, that it’s fine for kids to have to sit in a government agency until we find some placement whether appropriate or not for this kid.”
Catherine Candisky is a freelance journalist who retired from The Columbus Dispatch in 2020 after a 35-year career as a reporter covering state government and politics with a focus on education, health and human services. This article was produced under a contract with the Public Children Services Association of Ohio. This story printed with permission from Public Children Services Association.