MOUNT VERNON — On Monday, State Rep. Rick Carfagna got a grassroots look at challenges facing case managers with Knox County Job & Family Services.
Taking advantage of his legislative break from the Ohio House, Carfagna rode with KCJFS managers Toni Hill and Heidi Beavers as they visited several homes. Hill works in the intake unit and investigates reports of neglect and abuse. Beavers is part of the ongoing unit, working primarily with teens.
The ride-along is a standing invitation from Matthew Kurtz, director of KCJFS, and Scott Boon, administrator KCJFS. Carfagna said his reason for the ride-along was two-fold:
- To find out if the legislation created in Columbus is working
- To get a feel for the stress caseworkers are experiencing
"All too often we legislate system changes in Columbus without any comprehension of how those at the local level will go about administering them or whether they will actually be effective," he told Knox Pages, responding to questions via email. "We usually provide little guidance and almost always, no funding."
Carfagna said that Kurtz and Boone are good at providing him monthly updates, but the three have also discussed "putting faces to the numbers."
"Their proposed ride-along was a great way to gain some direct perspective on the community challenges in Knox County and the types of cases that JFS caseworkers navigate," he said.
Carfagna said that he knows that the drug epidemic is taking a terrible toll on children and family services.
"We have too many addicted parents incarcerated or in treatment and unable to care for their children, which drives those kids into foster or kinship care. The normal caseloads for children services caseworkers should be in the teens, yet those numbers have soared into the twenties," he said.
Noting that the recent passage of a county JFS levy has helped free up some funds, Carfagna said there are still too many cases that demand large amounts of time and attention.
"These are stressful, tragic, and, at times, potentially dangerous situations that caseworkers must navigate," he said. "I wanted to talk to some of them directly and understand how they approach the job, what sort of path led them to this line of work, and what aspects they find both fulfilling and frustrating."
Carfagna said that one of his biggest takeaways from the ride-along is the need for youth-specific treatment resources. Although Knox County has great inpatient and outpatient addiction resources available, he said there should be a way to separate teenage addicts from the adult population and treat them as a separate demographic.
"Teenagers are in a different place in life with different struggles, and having teens in the same recovery mix as adults sometimes places them in even further vulnerable situations or exposes them to additional negative influences," he said.
Something else Carfagna said that he learned is that social services workers are a special and rare breed of public servants.
"Their capacity for patience, for persistence, and for empathy is extraordinary," he said. "These are people who are trying to turn around bad situations and work with people in desperate circumstances, all the while having lives and families of their own.
"They have a wisdom and understanding of the human condition that many of us will never know."
Regarding his reaction to potential future legislation, Carfagna said that the ride-along gave him a sense of how a social services worker must strategize each case. That includes the logistical challenges involved with juggling caseloads, paperwork, court appearances, and other aspects of the job.
"I'll be receptive to any ideas that will help empower those at the ground level to better coordinate their duties and provide these important services," he said.
One issue facing KCJFS is the lack of local foster families that enable youths to stay within the county. KCJFS has stepped up its efforts to recruit and train more foster families. While a few more families have come on board, more are needed.
Carfagna co-sponsored House Bill 8 which revises the requirements for foster caregiver training in Ohio to make the process more effective. The bill eliminates some of the mandatory requirements from the Ohio Revised Codes and leaves it up to the Ohio Department of JFS to establish the criteria.
HB 8 also gives more flexibility to ODJFS to adapt in a crisis such as with the current opioid epidemic. Passed out of the House in June, the bill awaits Senate action.
"During my ride-along, it was made clear to me that not only do we have shortages of foster caregivers, but the likelihood of foster care placement decreases rapidly as the child ages, which is heartbreaking," said Carfagna. "I will enthusiastically support anything we can do as a state to increase the pool of foster caregivers without degrading their training or the quality of the environments where these children are placed."
He said this is best done by working with Ohio and county JFS agencies and getting input from boots on the ground.
"I'm happy that Gov. DeWine has done just that with the social services supports outlined in both HB 8 and our state budget," he said.
The ride-along changed Carfagna's perception of children's services and JFS.
"It reinforced my respect and admiration for those who work in this space and are trying to make a difference by giving children in these circumstances a fighting chance at life," he said. "I also realized that because of the high levels of burnout associated with the social services profession, Knox County JFS as a whole is, and must remain, a nurturing, close-knit workplace with solid, supportive leadership."
Carfagna represents the 68th House District, which covers Knox County and half of Delaware County.