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Published: Saturday, 2/10/2001

Foster-care staffing called too tight

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services is too understaffed to deal with a rapidly expanding foster care system that requires closer scrutiny of homes and parents, the latest in a series of audits revealed yesterday.

While praising the department for requesting the audit of 11 of its programs and following through with some recommendations, State Auditor Jim Petro noted that a special audit on foster care will “identify some providers who are less than focused on the welfare of children.”

He said, “The department knows it. We know it.”

The audit did not touch on the state's child support enforcement system, which is now under fire for improperly withholding some past-due child support payments from poor families to offset state welfare costs.

Director Jacqui Romer-Sensky had estimated that families may be owed as much as $10 million. But yesterday she and Mr. Petro suggested that estimate was probably too high.

Mr. Petro said an audit in 1999 warned there would be “glitches” in the state's new automated support collection and disbursement system.

He said the audit never mentioned the state's failure to reprogram the system to reflect withholding changes enacted in the 1996 federal welfare reform law.

“We said that the timetable set by the federal government [for getting the system on line] was enormous and complicated and that penalties were bound to occur,” he said. “We said there were great risks, even if the system was operating by October, 2000, as it was. There would be a lot of glitches.”

In addition to incurring federal penalties that are about to reach $50 million, Ms. Romer-Sensky said the department was also under pressure by the Taft administration, the General Assembly, and child advocates to get the system on line.

But she said she doesn't believe it is unfair for the governor to be critical now because of consequences stemming from that pressure.

“If anyone is responsible, it's the unrealistic demands of the federal government,” she said. “Governor Taft cares deeply about these children. We all know no governor can know every nuance of a computer system.”

Mr. Petro said he doesn't expect the department to implement all of his recommendations, which would cost about $11.8 million a year plus $851,000 in one-time startup costs.

Among its findings, the audit recommended that family services hire about 60 staffers to deal with the growing demands of foster care licensing and inspection, adoption, and day care center licensing.

Some of those positions have been filled, and Ms. Romer-Sensky said more will be.

She said these jobs are exceptions to her general rule of freezing hiring in the wake of the department merger.

“I'm glad to hear she's going to move to beef that area up,” said House Minority Leader Jack Ford (D., Toledo). “This was one of the campaign promises that the governor made. He was supportive of foster care reform.”

The audit also recommends that the department:

  • Conduct annual background checks of foster care parents even after they've been licensed. Law requires such checks only before licensing.

  • Conduct thorough on-site inspections of foster homes. The department plans to begin inspecting a sampling of foster homes beginning this month.

  • Play a more direct role in the training of foster caregivers at a cost of $1.9 million.



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