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Foster-care placements on decline

The number of children who were placed into the custody of Lucas County Children Services fell to 419 last year, primarily because of the agency's emphasis on placing youngsters into the homes of relatives rather than traditional foster care.

In 1999, 519 children were placed in Children Services custody and 685 were taken into custody the year before that.

Dean Sparks, executive director of the agency, said there are advantages to “family caring for family,” if the placement is appropriate.

He said relatives are interviewed and background checks are undertaken to be certain that the child is not going from one bad situation to another

Children placed with relatives usually are not placed legally in the agency's custody, “but we still provide protective services and other oversight when necessary,” Mr. Sparks said

A benefit for the custodial adult is being free to make decisions on the child's behalf.

“If we have custody, a foster parent has to get approval for many decisions. Getting the child enrolled in school, making a doctor's appointment, or leaving town requires approval from the agency. It's a hassle. This way if they have custody, they can make those decisions.”

Although the number of youngsters in their custody has declined, the number of incidents investigated by Children Services increased to 4,200 in 2000, about 290 more cases than the previous year.

Mr. Sparks said that when he became director in 1997, “what I heard all of the time - from teachers, police, and others - that it was difficult to get us to look into a case.

“We decided to open the door a little,” and have begun to investigate more reports, he said.

Although the investigations have increased, the number of substantiated instances of abuse has remained about the same, Mr. Sparks said.

Last year, substantiated cases of abuse or maltreatment totaled 1,498. In the preceding year, there were 1,456 substantiated cases.

Investigations into some of the cases that weren't appropriate for Children Services were referred to other agencies.

“There may have been a mental health problem or any of a number of situations. Although they aren't our case, at least people are receiving service.”

An initiative that is used increasingly, Mr. Sparks said, is providing services at community centers.

He said the agency has begun parenting classes and other case-related activities at community centers while children can take part in tutorial and recreation programs.

The policy is more convenient for the families and has the added advantage of creating a point of connection in the family's neighborhood.

He said he was pleased with the direction Children Services is taking but is not satisfied in one category: The time it took to complete an assessment of an incoming case averaged 59 days. Mr. Sparks said completing an assessment should take about 30 days.

He stressed that an assessment is considered complete when the paperwork is completed and shouldn't be interpreted as a situation that may leave a child in a dangerous circumstance.

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