For years, it has worked the same - families would come to the attention of children services agencies on a report of abuse or neglect and caseworkers would respond with an investigation.
Not all families required the same amount of intervention, but many would respond the same way - resistant to help and suspicious of those who are offering it.
"When you're a caseworker knocking on the door, your job is to determine whether abuse or neglect occurred," said Kristin Gilbert, administrator of Justice Services for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. "With an alternate response, we have two pathways to take, including one that allows caseworkers to say, 'We're here to support you,' and, 'What do you think you need?'"
As a participant in a 10-county pilot project statewide, Lucas County is taking a new approach to helping families. The goal is to identify low-risk families and get them the help they need to keep them out of the courts.
The idea is simple, although one that state laws had previously hindered.
Instead of initiating an investigation once a family comes to the attention of local child protection agencies, as was required by state law, caseworkers are able to offer alternate means of helping the family.
By identifying concerns and proposing solutions, caseworkers hope to reduce the need for court intervention and the possibility of removing the child from the home.
"The [Supreme Court of Ohio] has always had an interest in alternative resolutions to disputes. Alternate response is a way to resolve issues before a case rises to the level of coming to the court," said Steve Hanson, manager of Children, Families, and the Courts Programs for the Supreme Court.
"Studies have shown that what this will mean is a decrease in case filings," he said. "The bonus effect of reducing those dockets is that the courts can spend more time on ... families that do require intervention."
In Lucas County, about 164 cases have been diverted to the Alternate Response program, said Cary Brown, manager of the Assessments Department at Lucas County Children Services. When the pilot project ends in 2010, a total of 500 cases will be addressed in the program.
The pilot program focuses on cases from four ZIP codes, which are among the areas where the highest numbers of reports to children services are generated. Those ZIP codes are 43604, 43605, 43607, and 43609.
Of the cases that do not involve allegations of sexual abuse or serious physical abuse, some are randomly selected to go down the Alternate Response path, Ms. Brown said.
"Child safety is our primary concern, but if we can work with the family to develop a plan while making sure that the child is safe, we're going to try," she said.
"It makes sense that we shouldn't intervene at the same level. For serious cases, we'll work with law enforcement, conduct a full forensic interview, and do an investigation," Ms. Brown added. "For a different level [of cases], we don't need all that, but we were locked into it by state laws."
The idea of the Alternate Response program is longstanding in other states. It evolved in Ohio about five years ago when a federal report of all the states showed that in Ohio, there were inconsistencies between counties on how child welfare issues were handled, state officials said.
The report prompted an 18-month study contracted by the Ohio Supreme Court that recommended a change in state law and how incidents are handled. The result was the Alternate Response pilot program.
Counties from across the state submitted applications to be a part of the project. Other counties involved include Fairfield, Franklin, Guernsey, Clark, Greene, Licking, Ross, Trumbull, and Tuscarawas.
Donna Mitchell, chief magistrate at the Lucas County Juvenile Court, said that those cases where a child's safety is at risk will continue to flow immediately into the court system. But in families where issues such as poverty have created problems in child rearing, the program may offer help where it is needed.
According to Children Services, an example of how the program has been used is when a family whose children had hygiene problems was given help in pest extermination and the cleaning of carpets in their home.
"It gives more flexibility to meet the particular presenting needs of the families than an ordinary case alternative. That's what we think will make a lot of difference to our families in our community," Ms. Mitchell said.
"The hope is to keep them from being serious cases, start doing earlier, more appropriate intervention in cases where there is no immediate threat to the child," she added. "Our ultimate goal is the preservation of families in which children can be safe. That's the bottom line."
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