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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Testimony before the Ohio Senate Finance Committee


Here is a link to testimony shared by Lisa Dickson today before the Senate Finance Committee regarding: 

1. What we are asking for in terms of a Youth Ombudsman Office

2. Why existing resources are not working to address this need

3. Why it must be autonomous and able to operate independently of ODJFS

4. Why it must be dedicated to youth and not combined with an office for caregivers

5. Why the voices of those with “lived experience” in foster care need to be included in its design

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

ABC6 On Your Side: Advocates fight for independent Ombudsman officer to help children in Ohio

"We want this office to be implemented correctly. Not just to say we did something. We want it to be structurally sound where it can actually serve children."

~ Quote from Jermaine Ferguson, which represents the stance of   Children's Defense Fund-Ohio, the OHIO YAB and ACTION Ohio.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Ongoing testimony for a Youth Ombuds Office

It was vitally important that Nikki, Deanna and Juliana testified earlier this week and that Jermaine and Kim testified today, and it will be vitally important for all of us to stay engaged in this effort in order to safeguard what youth have asked for, which is:

- A Youth Ombuds Office, separate from any mechanism to serve foster caregivers 

- Able to operate independently and autonomously of ODJFS 

Once again, our advocacy efforts made the news: 

Children Services Ombudsman Office Added To Abuse Reporting Measure

The House on Thursday took a step toward the creation of an ombudsman office for the state's foster care system, although a leading child welfare advocacy group asked lawmakers to go further with the language.

The proposal to create an arbiter of conflicts within the children services system, which has been the subject of biennial budget (HB 110) testimony, was amended into separate legislation on child abuse reporting (HB 4) during its fourth hearing before the House Families Aging & Human Services Committee. The bill remains in committee.

Chair Rep. Susan Manchester (R-Lakeview) said the amendment, adopted without opposition, also expands the pool of qualified home study assessors for the foster care system. It is supported by the DeWine Administration, she said.

However, Jermaine Ferguson, speaking on behalf of the Children's Defense Fund-Ohio, ACTION Ohio, and the Ohio Youth Advisory Board, asked the committee "to add more robust language to the amendment…."

He requested that the committee:

  • Establish an independent and autonomous Youth Ombudsman Office outside of the Department of Jobs and Family Services.
  • Define the powers and duties of the office.
  • Explicitly state that the office be dedicated to youth and not serve both youth and caregivers.
  • Mandate that current and former foster youth be involved in the design and operation of the office.

"The Youth Ombudsman office should not be housed in the DJFS because the agency is solely responsible for the state's supervision of the child welfare system. There is at a minimum an appearance of a conflict of interest because the ombudsman, staffing, operations, and the budget are directly influenced by DJFS," he said. "The Youth Ombudsman office should not serve both youth and the caregiver – there must be independent mechanisms that serve youth and the family caregiver to prevent any appearance of a conflict of interest."

Chair Manchester said the decision was made to house the office withing ODJFS based on precedent and the focus of state resources. Regarding some of the specifics requested by the witness, she said policymakers did not want to be too descriptive with the language.

The chair also noted that a $1 million appropriation for the office mention by Mr. Ferguson and a subsequent witness had been removed by the House under the assumption that ODJFS could establish the program with existing resources. She added that HB4 does not include an appropriation for that purpose.

Rep. Thomas West (D-Canton) and other members questioned why the office should not focus on both youth and caregivers.

Mr. Ferguson said he's not saying caregivers should not be served, just that a separate independent office should be focused on youth.

Responding to a question from Rep. Tim Ginter (R-Salem), the witness said an ombudsman could initiate an investigation based on trends or when a youth or caseworker flags a problem.

Kim Eckhart, also with the Children's Defense Fund-Ohio, raised the same concerns with the amendment's approach by requesting the ombudsman office be independent and focused on youth.

She told Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Loveland) her group had not done cost estimates for the program but was asking that its funding be used in specific ways.

Responding to Rep. Stephanie Howse (D-Cleveland), Ms. Eckhart said of the original funding proposal, "I would say it's an under-estimate," especially of there were two separate offices for youth and caregivers.

The witness opined that it would be feasible to use that funding for an independent office with a separate line item.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Legislative testimony to establish a Youth Ombuds Office

Foster Youth Seek Independent Ombuds Program  
Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

Witnesses told a Senate panel Tuesday that they want a proposed foster youth ombuds office to be separate from the Department of Job and Family Services. 

Kim Eckhart, with the Children's Defense Fund of Ohio, told the Senate Health Committee that the language in the budget (HB 110) doesn't clarify that it will be independent or that it will particularly serve foster youth. The $1 million allocated in the spending bill could be used to begin a procurement process, with input from foster youth, to develop an outside ombudsman program. 

Deanna Jones, who is a former foster care youth and a caseworker in the foster care system, said an independent youth ombudsman office is needed. "I have heard stories in the community that youth have endured more trauma, more abuse, and more neglect as a result of feeling like they were not heard by their service team or the agency surrounding them," she said.

"Ohio children and teens who are experiencing abuse in biological, kinship, adoptive, foster, congregate care and residential placements deserve to be heard – but continue to report expressing their concerns, and not being listened to." 

She pointed to the story of Ma'Khia Bryant, who was killed by a Columbus police officer last month. In that case, there were previously reported issues with her foster placement that were not addressed. 

"Prior to her death, Ma'Khia and her sister reported that there were adult children in the foster home that were making them feel unwanted and unsafe," Ms. Jones said. "Lacking the current existence of a Youth Ombudsman Office, who also could they have called when they feel their service team was not able or willing responding to those concerns?" 

Nikki Chinn, a former foster youth, said current and former foster youth have advocated in recent years to address problems at residential facilities where abuse was reported, and officials did not at first take concerns seriously. 

Having an ombuds office serving youth could have led to complaints being investigated more quickly. "Having a Youth Ombudsman they could have called to investigate the issues and take appropriate action would have prevented these vulnerable young people from having to endure the abuse and trauma so many faced at the facilities," she said.

An office that tries to serve both foster youth and caregivers would have an inherent conflict of interest, she said. "Lessons learned from other states are that when an Ombudsman Office tries to serve both youth and adults, it ends up serving primarily adults." 

Juliana Barton, governmental liaison for ACTION Ohio, which represents foster care alumni, described her experience with abuse and said when she entered children services custody, she was asked why she hadn't reached out for help sooner. "An office designed by and serving youth and young adults could have prevented the years of abuse I suffered by providing an alternative mechanism to investigate the complaints against my father after children's services failed to intervene," she said. 

The advocates also urged members of the Senate General Government Budget TrackCommittee to establish the office, stressing the need for the ombudsman to be an independent entity built with the input of former foster youth. 

When asked, witnesses acknowledged that they are somewhat late given the looming deadline later this month for amendments to the budget. A version of the amendment is currently being drafting, Ms. Eckhart said, and "we are definitely working as speedily as possible." 

Even if that deadline is missed, Sen. Steve Wilson (R-Maineville) and Sen. Bob Hackett (R-London) urged the witnesses to continue their efforts. "Sometimes you don't get things done in time for the budget," Sen. Hackett said. "Don't give up." Sen. Hackett added that although he agrees with the need for independence, "the ombudsman should work extremely closely with (ODJFS)." 

Sen. Hearcel Craig (D-Columbus) described his own family's experience adopting youth and navigating the system, telling witnesses: "When we say to you we appreciate you coming down it's not hyperbole." Regarding the office, he asked: "What do you see that framework looking like?" 

Ms. Jones said the office should not be "just paperwork" and that the statute should "contain some teeth" so the proposal is not brushed aside as just another recommendation. "I just want to really stress it needs to be independent," she asked. "I cannot stress that enough." 

Sen. George Lang (R-West Chester), noting his own experience as a foster child, asked the witnesses what they envision success looking like at the conclusion of the biennium. Ms. Eckhart said the state can look at several other states that have created such offices as a guide. But she acknowledged that the health and wellness of children is difficult to measure. "I would encourage you to spend a little bit more time putting some specificity on that," Sen. Lang replied.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Press Release re: Youth Ombudsman Office

Ohio’s FY22-23 budget bill could pave the way to creating an Ombuds Office that would protect and give voice to youth in the foster care system.

Current and former foster youth are launching an advocacy campaign to develop an independent Ombuds Office to protect the rights of children and youth in care by investigating and resolving reports brought by youth themselves. The office would act as a safeguard to ensure that youth have someone to call who will listen and advocate for them.

“When I was a child, I used to wish that someone would stop by our house and that they would find us. It never happened. My summers were filled with abuse and fear… By providing a venue where the voices of youth can be heard without fear of retribution, this office will ensure the safety of Ohio’s youth,” said Jonathan Thomas, the NW Ambassador of the Overcoming Hurdles in Ohio Youth Advisory Board (OHIO YAB).

Thomas is one of the members of the YAB taking part in an advocacy campaign launched by CDF-Ohio, ACTION Ohio and the OHIO YAB to add provisions to the budget bill (HB110) that clearly state that the office should be dedicated to youth, independent from children’s services and designed by current and former foster youth. The Ohio YAB is a statewide organization of young people (aged 14-24) who have experienced foster care. ACTION Ohio (Alumni of Care Together Improving Outcomes Now Ohio (ACTION Ohio) is dedicated to improving outcomes for current and former foster care youth.

The campaign kicks off with the release of the Ombuds Office Legislative Issue Brief and advocacy toolkit followed by more than a dozen visits with legislators and youth with lived experience in foster care to explain the importance of this office. The campaign will ramp up in May during Foster Care Awareness Month and as the Ohio Senate holds hearings on the FY22-23 budget bill.

On May 17th, youth will present at the Ohio Legislative Children’s Caucus, a bipartisan, bicameral caucus devoted to championing children’s issues.

“The voices and involvement of those with lived experience is key to making this office a success. My recommendation for an ombudsman goes beyond just having an independent agency/office doing the necessary investigations and advocating for youth. I believe that having someone working in this office, with the experience of going through foster care, is essential. While anyone can work to understand what it is like to go through the system, there is no better expert than those that have directly experienced it,” said Jeremy Collier, former foster youth and current advocate.

Governor DeWine included $1 million, or $500,000 in each year of the FY22-23 biennial budget bill, HB110, to establish an Ombuds Office after the Children’s Services Transformation Advisory Council recommended creating an Ombuds Office for caregivers and youth in its 2020 report. However, the bill does not include a specific appropriation or clearly state that there will be an office dedicated to foster youth. It also does not clearly state that the office will be independent from the Department of Job and Family Services or that current and former foster youth will have a role in its design and implementation.

Advocates are excited to see the progress made but seek to highlight that key provisions must be added, specifically:

1. To clearly state that the future Youth Ombudsman Office will be dedicated to youth and not combined with an office for caregivers;

2. To establish the office as independent from children’s services; and

3. To mandate that this office be designed by current and former foster youth