Saturday, October 09, 1999

Investigation prompts officials to check on foster children

No problems found in Hamilton County

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A newspaper investigation of the largest nonprofit foster-care provider in the state, with headquarters in the northwestern Ohio town of Delphos, has led Hamilton County officials to take a close look at the 58 local children in its care.

        There has been no indication that any of the Hamilton County children have been abused or neglected in homes provided by Specialized Alternatives for Family and Youth (SAFY), and none of the children have been removed from foster homes, county Human Resources Director Don Thomas said Friday.

        A four-part series on SAFY, published last week by the Dayton Daily News, alleging questionable land deals and administrative practices, has led to a state auditor's investigation.

        “As soon as we got wind of the allegations, we started looking at our kids in the system,” Mr. Thomas said. “But just because there are administrative difficulties, that does not mean the foster parents are bad people.”

        Rising numbers of children in need of foster care — more than 21,000 Hamilton County children are in the foster care system, up from 13,000 in 1990 — along with a severe shortage of foster parents has led Hamilton County to look to outside agencies to help carry the load.

        The county contracts with two Cincinnati-area companies, Magellan Public Solutions and Beech Acres, to care for some of the children with emotional and behavioral problems.

        Those companies then have entered into contracts with SAFY.

        Mr. Thomas also has asked for an audit of the contracts with SAFY, to ensure the county has received the services it is paying for — which amount to more than $28 million per year.

        Jim Mason, executive director of Beech Acres, said his caseworkers visit the children in the SAFY system at least once a month as part of their duties. Still, there will be a review of records to check on things, such as:

        • Times when the children may have been left unsupervised.

        • Administrative processes in place for the reporting of injuries and other incidents.

        • Runaway incidents.

        “We have no specific reports indicating anything of a safety problem,” Mr. Thomas said.

        SAFY has been in operation for 15 years and has grown from a small provider to a giant in the industry, branching into 10 states with millions in revenue, 800 foster homes and control over about 1,300 children.

        As a result of the Daily News series, the SAFY Board of Directors has placed President Bruce Maag on an indefinite leave of absence and told him to have no involvement with any aspect of SAFY's operation.

        SAFY spokeswoman Christine Pleva said safety of foster children always has been the company's primary mission.

        “It always has been and it will continue to be so,” she said.

        Mr. Thomas said if there are cases of abuse or neglect found, the county can seek a court hearing to remove the child from a SAFY home within hours.

        “If we find that some of the homes don't meet our standards, then we will take action to remove the children from the homes,” Mr. Thomas said.

        “Some of those children have been in their foster homes for two or three years.”


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