60,000 calls pour in annually alleging child abuse in Cuyahoga County

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - The Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family services receives about 60,000 calls into its child abuse hotline, about 15,000 of those turn into investigations, with the overarching goal of keeping kids safe and families together.

Ryan Lacey, the investigations supervisor of the children's services division, sat down with Cleveland 19 on Wednesday to speak, in general, about the agency's process.

Lacey told Cleveland 19 the high volume of child abuse hotline calls are screened to determine if there's an allegation of abuse, or if the call was for another reason. About 15,500 turned into investigations in 2015, and officials said that number will remain fairly constant, at about 15,000 for 2017.

The cases that are determined to need investigating are separated into emergency and non-emergency calls. Emergency calls need to be dealt with in one hour, non-emergency within 24 hours.

"We get emergencies where there's children in the home and there's no food in the home, the children can range from 17 years old to 2 months old. We can get emergencies where children are in the hospital and parents are refusing to go and get them. We receive emergencies where kids are at school and afraid to go home, so workers are responding directly to the schools," said Lacey.

She said the investigator will go, unannounced, to the child's home to interview the family, and see a "snapshot" of what's going on. During the initial face-to- face, Cleveland 19 was told that the investigator is assessing safety in the house, and if there is an immediate danger.

CPS officials may call police to have the child immediately removed.

"The [Child Protective Services] workers cannot remove children on their own from a home, however the police have gone out and removed children and brought them into our agency," said Lacey. "We send them out there with the mindset of, 'until you know that these children are safe, they're unsafe.'"

If there is a potential problem that's not an emergency, Lacey said that all the stakeholders come together for a meeting, the children are placed in daycare at the CPS building, and the team decides what the best course of action is for the child.

If it's determined that the best course of action would be to remove the child, then a recommendation is issued to the legal department.

Officials there decide whether or not to file a request for the child to be removed, and then that request goes through the court process. All of this happens within 24 hours.

Lacey said that emergency case workers have about 12 cases at one time -- social workers with longer term court involved cases have between 12 and 15 cases at one time.

Cleveland 19 asked if that is a manageable number.

"You know, what is a manageable number? We would like to say it is, but as many cases that we get called into our hotline every single day, the influx could change within a 30 day timeline," said Lacey.

Lacey said the goal is always to reunite a child with his or her parents, and if they can't take good care of the child, then an immediate placement is needed. For instance, a relative is sought to be a temporary guardian.

"We want all children to develop and thrive and grow in their normal family setting. If that's not the safest environment for them, or the most appropriate, then we need to find their relatives, find their cousins, find their aunties -- we need the families involved because those are the people who know these children and those are the people the children know as well. We don't want to traumatize them more than they've already been through," said Lacey. "You know, we do see the worst of the worst, but we also see the best of the best. We see parents and families who are trying to work hard to provide for their children, you know, we do go out and we see parents and families who are trying to work hard to provide for their children…they become overwhelmed they don't know what resources are available to them."

She said that the goal is always reunification of the family.

"Parents and families have rights. We know that as human beings we all learn at different speeds, different paces, and things like that, I'm not saying that every situation needs to be a permanent custody situation, so we do need to start by engaging the family, we do need to start by supporting the family and empowering them, but also building a support system around them," said Lacey. "We understand that it's a process, so we don't just reunify children with their parents and close the cases, you know, we reunify children with their parent and ensure that everything in the home is stable again."

Cleveland 19 asked Lacey how some specific circumstances can happen – like one child be removed from a parent's custody, but another child stay with that parent.

"Initially I would definitely have to say, speaking as a supervisor, that's a direct case-by-case situation. Maybe the one child was a 17-year-old who was defiant, the parents couldn't handle their behaviors and things like that, but there was a 10-year-old in the home that the parents didn't have an issue with parenting or being there for that child, however the 17-year-old's behavior was unmanageable. That's one situation I could see that happening in; however, maybe we removed an older child and mom had a new child -- it's case by case," said Lacey.

She also said sometimes one child is removed, and the mother has another child. "If there's an open case and we are aware mom is pregnant, we're supposed to send hospital alerts out."

Cleveland 19 asked Lacey if, even with the best efforts, sometimes kids fall through the cracks – this is how she responded.

"We can't predict whether any parent will benefit from the services we provide, the only thing that we can do is make the referrals, continue to work with the parents, work with their parents, work with their support, any community partners or stakeholders and service providers that are connected with the family, have them there at the table too, again, so the parents can understand what brought them to the attention of our agency," said Lacey.

Lacey urged anyone with any information about possible child abuse to call the agency's hotline, 216-696-KIDS (5437).

She said callers can remain anonymous, but she does ask that callers provide as much identifying information as possible, including things like names, current addresses and birth dates.

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