ublished: Friday, October 21, 2011, 5:10 AM Updated: Friday, October 21, 2011, 9:49 AM
Patricia Rideout took over the Department of Children and Family Services in August, after county Executive Ed FitzGerald fired Deborah Forkas, the former chief. Forkas had been criticized for controversial budget cuts and for the agency’s handling of several cases.
Rideout, a former consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a leading child-welfare organization, had been part of the task force appointed last year to examine the agency.
The group was formed after two children were killed and two others were starved nearly to death despite the department being involved in their circumstances. The agency also made missteps in a number of other cases, including one in which it missed warning signs from its own workers when it recommended custody of an infant to a convicted drug trafficker with a history of domestic violence.
The panel’s 72 recommendations included improving services to combat threats from domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness — problems common to many child abuse and neglect cases.
During a session with task force members Thursday about department progress, Rideout said about 10 percent of suggested reforms have been adopted, but most are still in development. The agency is working more closely with the county mental health and drug addiction services board to assess parents. It has also adopted a more rigorous process for deciding child placements and reunifications with parents, she said.
“This is a long-term project as you can imagine,” she said.
Still unanswered is whether the department will have money to carry out some of the recommendations, including enhanced services after children are returned to parental custody.
Some services have been lost to budget cuts, and the agency has lost a number of staff members due to cuts and attrition. Staffing is down from 1,026 in 2009 to 801. Fifty workers left the department this year. Caseloads per worker have risen.
Rideout said one of her goals is to increase family visits for children in county custody, which has been shown to quicken family reunifications. But the department in 2009 cut staff assigned to transport children and monitor visits. The job now falls to caseworkers, who sometimes drive an hour or more to pick up children in foster care, sit through meetings and drive them back.
“We’re going to need creativity around this, but we’ve got to do better” Rideout told the gathering. “This is a high priority.”
David Crampton, a Case Western Reserve University professor of social work who chaired the task force, said in an interview there is concern about vacant staff positions.
“Some [jobs] have been unfilled for a while, so we’ll have to get some clarity on what is a realistic staffing level,” Crampton said.
Rideout is filling 11 jobs in the agency and has asked FitzGerald for authority to hire 15 more. FitzGerald, who accompanied Rideout to a meeting Wednesday with The Plain Dealer editorial board, said he will await recommendations from Rideout about programs that would require additional money.
Rideout said she is also trying to strengthen collaborations with neighborhood groups and other outside organizations, which she said are crucial to the department’s mission.