67 teenagers have ‘spent more than one day’ in office building this year per Cuyahoga County officials

Published: Aug. 30, 2022 at 7:19 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - 19 Investigates continues to push for answers, hoping to help homeless children in Cuyahoga County.

Last week, we told you the heartbreaking story of one mother who’s fighting for her teen battling severe mental illness.

With no where to go, we discovered he was one of several kids left living in a county office building.

This is a story everyone needs to see... one of the most heartbreaking interviews I've done in a while. This mother says told me she is at a loss for how to help her son & other kids living downtown at a county office building, because they have nowhere else to go.

Posted by Hannah Catlett on Wednesday, August 24, 2022

19 Investigates made a public records request for documents showing the number of children staying the night at the county’s Jane Edna Hunter building while awaiting placement at the beginning of July.

After multiple follow up calls and emails, we finally obtained that information late Tuesday afternoon.

According to a county spokesperson, so far this year through the end of June, a majority of the more than 600 children who had to spend time in Jane Edna’s child care room were there less than 24 hours.

However, 67 teenagers spent more than one day there.

Sarah Hihn’s been fostering children for 15 years.

“It is so hard. But, somebody has to do it, and it is worth it. We are talking about children,” she said.

Hihn’s adopted four kids. She says she knew one daughter experienced severe trauma before the age of two.

“Her trauma caused her a lot of mental illness throughout her life. as a result we ended up in juvenile court, having issues with children services,” she said.

Hihn is a friend of Cheryl’s, the mother we interviewed last week about her 15-year-old son.

Cheryl told us her son can no longer live with her and her other kids, because he’s become violent and is struggling with mental illness. Turned away from several residential living facilities because of his challenges, Cheryl says her son is one of several kids who been living off and on at the Jane Edna Hunter building.

Safety is now a concern of the social workers doing their jobs there and the public.

“It is time that the greater community become aware of this,” Hihn said. “We just need to see some impactful change.”

The county’s spokesperson, Mary Louise Maddigan, told us it is not accurate to say the county “assigned” or “placed” the children at Jane Edna. The kids technically are neither. She says they are simply allowed to stay at Jane Edna while awaiting placement.

Maddigan sent us the following statement:

The Division of Children & Family Services has a child care room in the building to accommodate a child while he or she waits for a placement when the parents are unable or unwilling to keep their child. We do not “place” children in the building – they are there only until we can find a bed for them. There are not enough beds for the children who need them.

Throughout 2022 (the end of June), there have been 628 children in the child care room awaiting placement, but some of those children were in the building multiple times this year. They range in age from infant to 20 years. Most were in our child care room less than 24 hours. There were 67 teenagers – always the hardest to place – for more than 1 day. Of those, some arrived in the middle of the night; some were brought by police; six were between 18 and 20 years old, making things harder because most providers are only licensed to serve children under 18 years old.

We do not have enough beds for teens.

DCFS has partnered with DD, the ADAMHS Board, and Juvenile Court, to try to find more beds for children in need. Every one of these child-serving entities is part of the placement crisis affecting children in our county and across the state. We are also working on finding a space where we can temporarily accommodate children who should not be in the detention center but are still hard to place with a family or in a therapeutic setting.

The Division of Children & Family Services is the last resort for children whose parents cannot or will not care for them; we cannot say “no” to sheltering a child when they are brought to our building.

The county also gave us a breakdown of where the kids are that they’ve placed in a safe situation.

The data shows the need for housing is so dire that 41 percent of kids in Cuyahoga County custody have been sent to live somewhere outside of county, and 69 Ohio kids are living out of state.

The executive director of Public Children Services Association of Ohio testified before congress earlier this year about the challenge of finding placements for kids with mental illness.

She said it’s a statewide issue that many kids who are struggling end up spending one or more nights at the agency which she says will lead to further trauma for the youth and unsafe conditions for staff and the community.

PCSAO’s website says “a survey of county children services agencies revealed that in 2021, nearly 1 in 4 (24%) children entered children services custody primarily because of mental illness, developmental/intellectual disability, or as a diversion from juvenile corrections. A workforce crisis in child protective services and behavioral health care, combined with a shortage of placement options for children with high-acuity needs, has led to children sleeping in county agencies at least one night rather than immediately accessing the services they need.”

Hihn believes awareness of that is the first step towards fixing what’s broken.

“I think people can blame it on the money,” she said. “I think in the last few years we have seen some things from the governor that have thrown out money, so my question is-- where is it getting spent? Why has nothing come to fruition for people on the front lines?”

19 Investigates has reached out to the governor and requested an interview with the head of his new program aimed at reforming the system for kids with mental illness.

We will continue to follow this story in the days ahead.

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