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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Friday, May 20, 2022

Press release from CDF-Ohio about Ohio's first-ever Youth Ombudsman

 Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio applauds Governor DeWine’s appointment of Jenny Stotts as its first Youth Ombudsman, a role dedicated to ensuring that the concerns of youth in foster care are listened to and resolved

COLUMBUS — Today’s announcement of Ohio’s first Youth Ombudsman by Governor DeWine is good news for youth in foster care across the state of Ohio.

Earlier this year, Governor DeWine signed H.B. 4, which established the role of the Youth Ombudsman, who is charged with investigating complaints made by youth in foster care and advocating for their best interest. The OHIO YAB (Overcoming Hurdles in Ohio Youth Advisory Board), the statewide organization of young people (aged 14-24) who have experienced foster care, Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio (CDF-Ohio), and ACTION Ohio (Alumni of Care Together Improving Outcomes Now Ohio), were partners in the Youth Ombudsman advocacy campaign and are especially thankful for today’s announcement as the culmination of work by both groups and the fulfillment of a commitment by Governor DeWine, a longtime advocate for children in foster care.

“Stotts is a leader who demonstrates a sense of urgency when a young person’s concerns have not been addressed by those entrusted with their care. This role is critical, especially in instances where youth find themselves in an unsafe placement. We urge her to prioritize protecting youth from retaliation,” said Kim Eckhart of CDF-Ohio.

H.B. 4 requires that the OHIO YAB have input into the selection of the Youth Ombudsman. The OHIO YAB submitted this input during the selection process and welcomes the appointment of Stotts, who embodies their recommendations. They recommended that the leader be proactive in informing youth about the Foster Youth Bill of Rights and how this office can help to enforce those rights. At a minimum, they will have experience in advocating for youth who have experienced foster care, such as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). Also, they should have experience in investigations and understand the rules and laws of the child welfare system in Ohio, as well as the different processes among counties. The key recommendation is that youth can trust this person and recommend the office to their peers who are experiencing a situation of abuse or rights violations.

“Stotts served as a county CASA director and is someone who understands trauma and how it affects behavior. She is an adoptee who grew up with foster siblings. She has made it possible for foster youth to share their voice and insights on numerous occasions, and we trust and know that she will welcome their ongoing insights in the future,” said Lisa Dickson, co-facilitator of the OHIO YAB.

“Stotts moves with intentionality and consideration that will greatly benefit the youth this office will serve. We are excited to hear of her announcement and have faith she will bring that to the role,” said Deanna Jones, MPA, BSSW, LSW, Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio Consultant and former foster youth and caseworker.

The OHIO YAB and CDF-Ohio are hopeful that the Youth Ombudsman will serve to enforce the Foster Youth Bill of Rights and play a key role in educating youth about their rights. They urge the Youth Ombudsman to identify and advocate for system-level reforms to protect youth. They see this role as a key part of holding the system accountable and making the system more responsive to youth needs from the youth’s perspective.

Press Release from the Governor's Office regarding Ohio's first ever Youth Ombudsman


Governor Appoints Two Ombudsmen to Lead New Office

May 19, 2022

(COLUMBUS, Ohio)—Governor Mike DeWine today announced the selection of two individuals to lead the Youth and Family Ombudsmen Office.  Jenny R. Stotts will serve as the first-ever Youth Ombudsman, while Jennifer A. Sheriff will serve as the first-ever Family Ombudsman. The office, a recommendation included in the Children’s Services Transformation Advisory Council’s Final Report, will be housed in the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and is set to open May 31, 2022.

“Members of the Children Services Transformation Advisory Council heard over and over again from foster youth, former foster youth, and families that  separate, independent ombudsmen were needed to listen, investigate, and find solutions when there are concerns,” Governor DeWine said. “I am proud that we are enacting this recommendation, and I am confident that this new office, combined with other council recommendations, will help Ohio better serve kids and their families.”

On February 28, 2022, Governor Mike DeWine signed Amended House Bill 4 into law, creating the Youth and Family Ombudsmen Office. The office, which consists of both a Youth Ombudsman and a Family Ombudsman, will ensure the independent and impartial review of youth, family, and community complaints and concerns, while attempting to resolve the issues.

Prior to accepting the Youth Ombudsman position, Stotts served as the Executive Director of the Athens County Court Appointed Special Advocates/Guardian Ad Litem (CASA/GAL) Program and the Regional Coordinator of CASA in Southeast Ohio. Her professional experiences include direct practice in child protective services as a caseworker and forensic interviewer. Stotts also served in workforce preparation as part of the University Partnership Title IV-E Child Welfare Training Program (UPP). Stotts is a licensed social worker.

Family Ombudsman Sheriff most recently served as the Lucas County Child Protection Ombudsman. After graduating from law school in 2008, she spent the next eight years prosecuting criminal cases with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. Beginning in 2016, she managed a challenging child abuse and neglect caseload as an Assistant Attorney General representing the Arizona Department of Child Safety.

“Having been a foster parent, I know the value in an office dedicated to helping both youth and families,” said ODJFS Director Matt Damschroder. “The Youth and Family Ombudsmen Office, and our recently published bills of rights for foster youth and resource caregivers, are examples of how we can empower families and make the system easier to navigate.”

Damschroder also announced that in addition to the appointment of the Ombudsmen, Rachel Selby has been selected to serve as State Liaison for the office. In her role, she will serve as a liaison between the office and its stakeholders to grow awareness about its services. Selby has a Masters of Humanities and most recently served as Philanthropy Officer for Dayton Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Governor DeWine created the Children Services Transformation Advisory Council in late 2019 to hear directly from those who have experienced the children’s services system first-hand and make recommendations to help children’s services better meet the needs of the families they serve. Following 10 field hearings, the council issued their final report that included 37 recommendations. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services has fully implemented or has made significant progress in implementing 36 of the recommendations to ensure lasting change for Ohio’s children and families.

Virtual meeting with Director Hauck, thanks to Disability Rights Ohio


The OHIO YAB and ACTION Ohio are seeking to make child welfare more disability competent and vice-versa. We want foster care youth and adults with a foster care history to know who to contact, what the resources are, and how to navigate them.

Thanks to support from Disability Rights Ohio, we were able to participate in a virtual meeting with Director Hauck and her staff on Wednesday, May 16, 2022.

During the call, we mentioned that we would love to invite Director Hauck’s statewide leadership when it comes to establishing additional conduits for these two systems to coordinate with one another such as:

  • Establishing a statewide team to focus on coordination of care for foster youth with disabilities 
  • Developing ongoing cross-trainings that  include disability service providers and child welfare staff.

It’s important to note that: 

  • Our “ask” is specific to foster care youth (not the broad term: “multi-systems” youth) 
  • Because our population has specific needs, and current/former foster youth are eligible for specific resources. 
  • We want to ensure that current and former foster youth, and their service providers, are aware of those resources, especially since many of them are time-limited.

Regina, Juliana and Laquita shared powerfully about: 

  • The disconnect between systems, and the need to ensure better coordination between developmental disability systems and foster care systems. 
    • The need for developmental disability service providers and agencies to have a better understanding of trauma and the unique needs of foster youth.
    • Stable housing, and holding providers accountable for youth in care when involving a 30-day notice, and youth having to find somewhere to go.
    • It is incredibly traumatizing to come from the foster care system, which bounces you around, and then experience housing stability afterwards.Not being able to access certain services because of different funding. 

  • Challenges faced when it comes to:
    • Delay in being diagnosed (i.e. with dyslexia) as a teen in foster care. Better communication between systems could make more timely identification possible.
    • Being determined to be eligible for services within the developmental disabilities system including when childhood documentation is difficult to locate or no longer exists (i.e. records only having a 10 year retention period).
    • Barriers in being able to access services within the developmental disabilities system

  • How overwhelming it is as a former foster youth with no family support to:
    • Face these issues personally
    • Seek to provide care for a sibling, with no additional family support to rely upon

One commitment that ACTION Ohio can make is that our website includes pathfinders for various resources, and we would love to work with Disability Rights Ohio and members of Director Hauck's team to create one or more pathfinders to assist in navigation. 

It was wonderful to learn about the dedication that Director Hauck's team has to providing technical assistance as needed, and we would love to learn more, create infographics in order to be of support, and also have a contact person on her team to reach out to as needed for technical assistance and questions. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Imprint Article celebrating an Ombudsman for Foster Youth in Ohio

Honoring the Life of Ma’Khia Bryant: An Ombudsperson for Foster Youth in Ohio

Sarah Tiano, The Imprint, 4/20/2022.

In the year since an Ohio police officer killed Ma’Khia Bryant, a teenager in foster care, the state has created a Youth Ombudsman Office which will launch May 31.  

The cries for help from Ma’Khia Bryant’s Ohio foster home began weeks before the 16-year-old was killed by police gunfire one year ago today. 

Ma’Khia and her younger sister had called 911, begged to be moved, and described fights getting out of control, according to press reports and those close to the girls’ family. 

News of Ma’Khia’s death on April 20, 2021 spread just moments before a Minnesota jury convicted officer Derek Chauvin for for murdering George Floyd — a killing that renewed rage and grief in a nation focused on police brutality and systemic racism like no other time in recent history. Video footage of the Columbus incident followed shortly thereafter, haunting images of a young Black girl shot by a white police officer.

In child welfare circles, the shooting revealed a fundamental flaw in our nation’s governance: How a system designed to protect abused and neglected children failed Ma’Khia. One glaring policy gap that, if better addressed, could well have saved her life is the lack of a central office where foster children can easily turn to for help.

“Everything about that situation was broken in so many ways,” said Lisa Dickson, spokesperson for the youth-led Alumni of Care Together Improving Outcomes Now (ACTION Ohio). “And it’s not just Ma’Khia that the system is failing.” 

In the year since, one of those shortcomings has been addressed. Legislation creating the Youth and Family Ombudsman Office passed in February. The new resource, located within the state’s Department of Job and Family Services, will be available to foster children starting May 31. 

In a statement sent to The Imprint acknowledging the one-year mark, Franklin County Children’s Services called Ma’Khia’s death “a personal and heartbreaking loss to our workers and Agency.”

“We continue to share our condolences with Ma’Khia’s family, friends, and the community at large,” the statement said. 

Ma’Khia was killed outside her foster home last year after Columbus police officer Nicholas Reardon shot her four times, according to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. Law enforcement had been called to the home in response to an argument involving Ma’Khia, her 15-year-old sister, and two young women who had previously been fostered in the home, the state’s investigative records show. Body cam footage shows that when law enforcement arrived, Ma’Khia appeared to be swinging a knife.

In March, a grand jury declined to indict Reardon, with special prosecutors noting that under Ohio law, “the use of deadly force by a police officer is justified when there exists an immediate or imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or another.”

The Columbus Department of Public Safety has announced it will conduct an internal review to determine whether Reardon’s actions followed department policy. A statement released by Ma’Khia’s family last month pledged to be “resolute” in fighting for justice on her behalf, according to the Associated Press. 

“There should have been other non-deadly options available to deal with this situation,” they stated, calling  for “full-scale changes” to Ohio’s foster care system to prevent similar tragedies.

When the circumstances surrounding Ma’Khia’s death were revealed, Ohio advocates for youth pointed to her case as a prime example of why an ombudsperson was so desperately needed. Ma’Khia and her sister spent two years cycling through foster and group homes, only to find themselves feeling threatened and unsafe yet again. Their outreach for help and pleas to be moved had apparently gone unnoticed.

Testifying at a state Senate committee hearing last year, former foster youth Deanna Jones said her experience in the child welfare system was not unlike Ma’Khia’s. Jones said she remembers feeling unsafe too, but was fortunate to have an understanding caseworker.  

“I saw how my life could have ended if I had not had an advocate,” Jones said, adding: “Honestly, I feel Ma’Khia was in survival mode.” 

Dickson described abuse and concerns reported by foster youth as commonly disregarded by authorities and child maltreatment hotline workers. The role of a foster youth ombudsperson is to answer those concerns, and, when necessary, to advocate on their behalf. 

“She could have called this office, and they could have said there’s something going on in this foster home where she feels unsafe, and we want to put her in respite pending an investigation,” Dickson said. “And she might not have lost her life.” 

Foster youth and their supporters have been pushing for the state to create a Youth Ombudsman Office since 2018, a campaign launched by the Overcoming Hurdles in Ohio Youth Advisory Board (OHIO YAB). 

After repeated testimonials by current and former foster youth, the Legislature approved the creation of a Youth Ombudsman Office, which will focus as a direct direct resource for foster children, investigating and attempting to resolve their complaints. 

Please note that the Youth Ombudsman Office will operate separately from the Family Ombudsman Office, which will focus on the concerns of adults involved with the child welfare system.

House Bill 4 grants the Office access to child welfare records and data from public and private foster care agencies. The Youth Ombudsman Office will produce annual reports which will be evaluated by the youth themselves. The OHIO YAB’s evaluation and recommendations will be shared directly with the Governor.

Seventeen other states have passed laws creating ombuds offices dedicated to serving foster children, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Fourteen of those offices are autonomous and independent of the department they oversee, including those in Colorado, Michigan and Washington state. In California, Utah and Texas, the offices are autonomous but, like Ohio, operate within the department that also manages the child welfare agency. Independent offices generally have more power, including the ability to issue subpoenas and in some cases intervene directly in court cases.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Protecting youth who run away from unsafe situations

OHIO YAB Ambassador Todd Brooklyn and Lisa Dickson of ACTION Ohio spoke with Senator Manning yesterday, to thank him for his work on Ohio Senate Bill 288 and to ask for his future support in establishing a less punitive response for youth who run away, and ensure that their records are automatically expunged of this status offense when they enter young adulthood.

We shared with him that:

  • The most common reason youth give for running away is seeking to escape a negative home environment.
  • Across multiple studies of runaway youth, rates of physical abuse range from 40-60%.
  • 34% of teens reported sexual abuse to the National Runaway Safeline as the reason why they left home.
  • Youth who go missing for longer periods of time, and who travel farthest away, are most likely to have been abused previously.
  • For those who run away to escape abuse, their biggest fear is being returned back to the abusive situation.
  • According to the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, agencies are required to provide a counseling session after youth run away, to figure out why – but this doesn’t always happen.
  • Too often, youth are returned to abusive situations and they often run away again.

Running away is considered a “status offense,” which is a noncriminal act that is considered a law violation only because of a youth’s status as a minor. In Ohio, status offenses are classified as “unruly children” – and there is no lower age specified for an “unruly child.”  This means that a child as young as 10 years old who runs away to seek to escape an abusive situation could be charged with a status offense for doing so. 

In addition, if the young person runs away again, the court can punish the youth with a term of secure confinement. These instances of secure confinement do nothing to help youth and can, in fact, make it more likely that young person engages in delinquent behavior in the future. From a federal sense, this is outdated policy. When the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was reauthorized in 2018, one of its core requirements was the deinstitutionalization of juveniles for status offenses.

During the call, Senator Manning shared that: 

  • He is glad we reached out to him about this issue because it is right up his alley. 
  • That he is concerned to hear that state of Ohio has no lower age limit on status offenses like running away.
  • In his county youth aren’t charged for status offenses until they are at least 12 years old
  • SB 288 has been getting a lot of pushback from law enforcement and prosecutors
  • This might work well as a stand-alone bill, one that he would definitely support, to be introduced before the end of break. He believes this could be a good bipartisan bill. 
  • He is going to reach out to his friend who is a former juvenile judge, and think about additional state Senators and Representatives that might be a great fit to also support. 
  • He suggested that we could reach out to Representative Brian Stewart to see if this could be added as an amendment to his bind-over bill.