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Published: Sunday, 11/28/2004

Fulton County eyes coalition to ease costs

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

WAUSEON - The teenage girl's father is in prison and her mother has been in trouble with the law.

The girl picked up some of their drug and alcohol habits. And for years, her social worker said, the girl was doing more to protect her mother than the mother was doing to nurture the girl.

Now the girl lives with a foster family and her story is one of dozens in Fulton County, where county commissioners predict costs to keep youth in foster care will be up 50 percent next year compared to this year.

The commissioners have budgeted $480,000 for foster care next year. Until this year, costs in this rural county were usually less than half of that amount.

The increase is due to more children in foster care, a far greater prevalence of serious mental health issues among those youth, and increased costs from foster care agencies, according to county administrator Vond Hall.

He hopes to reduce those costs with a Wal-Mart style approach of increasing the commissioners' buying power by organizing a coalition of area counties that could tell foster care agencies, "Here's what we're willing to pay," rather than simply accepting the prices they quote.

Tomorrow at the County Commissioners Association of Ohio convention in Columbus, Mr. Hall plans to talk up Fulton County's idea with other northwest Ohio commissioners and administrators.

The idea has potential, said Dennis Hilgeman, executive director of Pemberville Youth Academy, a 20-bed facility in Wood County for youth in county custody who have too many problems to live in most foster homes.

If a group of counties would present him with a contract that would keep his beds filled at all times, he said he might promise not to raise his rates for several years.

The academy charges $100 a day. About half of the youngsters there are addicted to drugs or alcohol; about a quarter of them are in special education programs.

Some area competitors charge $250 a day, Mr. Hilgeman said, and those with the most intensive psychiatric services charge up to $400 a day.

"It is and has been a major expense," Rita Franz, president of the Henry County Commissioners, said of foster care. She typically sees monthly bills of $50,000 to $60,000 for youth in custody from Henry County, population 29,210. Occasionally those monthly bills have been as high as $80,000.

Kay Wyse, director of foster care at Adriel Foster Care Inc.'s northwest Ohio office near Archbold, said county commissioners' rising costs have far more to do with more troubled youth in custody than higher costs from her agency.

Adriel has held its rates for three years at $47 to $75 per child per day for youngsters living in foster homes, she said, although it occasionally negotiates higher rates for youth who are sexual predators or have other extreme problems.

There are more youth in county custody, she said, in part because social workers and the teachers, nurses, and day-care workers who refer problems to them have been doing a more thorough job in recent years.

In Fulton County, the average number of youth in the county's custody was 28 in the first three quarters of this year, the highest number in at least four years.

But Ms. Wyse said county officials' assessment that there are more children with serious problems is "absolutely true - and frighteningly so."

There are more complicated step-families where all of the adults work away from home, leaving the children on their own for longer periods of time, she said. Some spend that time playing violent video games - a popular one involves shooting people and having sex in cars. Some use the Internet to research how to get high from a bottle of hair spray. Some experiment with prescription drugs that had not even been invented a generation ago.

"We have younger and younger addicts," she said.

Marvin Stuckey, a Williams County commissioner, said he would be willing to listen to ideas to control rising foster care costs with anyone, although he didn't hold high hopes for the Fulton County idea of a buying group.

"What we really need to work on is the prevention," he said, adding that might be an even harder goal.

But Toni Jensen, an independent social worker in Wauseon, said prevention is not impossible.

Commissioners could prevent some family break-ups by offering more parenting classes and family counseling sessions at the first sign of trouble. And if commissioners would apply for more grants, she said, such classes should not make a big impact on county budgets.

Contact Jane Schmucker at: jschmucker@theblade.com or 419-337-7780.



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