Highland County commissioners (l-r) David Daniels, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton are pictured at their April 28 meeting. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Highland County commissioners (l-r) David Daniels, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton are pictured at their April 28 meeting. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Highland County commissioners accepted the resignation of Highland County Job & Family Services director Katie Smith April 28, one week after appointing an interim director.

“This week, we received a letter of resignation from the director of Job & Family Services, due to her moving,” commission president Jeff Duncan said during Wednesday morning's commission meeting. “Her family’s relocating to South Carolina.”

Commissioners voted 3-0 to accept the resignation.

As previously reported, Smith informed commissioners March 17 that she would be leaving her position and that she and her family were moving out of the state due to “employment opportunities.”

At that time, Smith’s last day was yet to be announced. During the commissioners’ April 7 meeting, commissioner Terry Britton said that Smith would be leaving the director position “probably at the end of May.”

On April 21, commissioners held an over 90-minute executive session with Brett Geary of Clemans, Nelson & Associates to discuss “personnel/employment matters,” after which they voted to pass a resolution authorizing “the interim appointment of Katherine Smith as Director of Job and Family Services.”

“This was facilitated by the fact that the director is currently out,” commissioner David Daniels said last week. “This is so that Kathy can sign official documents while she’s on leave.”

Katherine Smith is a fiscal officer and is not to be confused with Katie Smith.

Also this week, commissioners received a letter, signed “Concerned Children Services Employees,” outlining alleged problems with various directors and supervisors, including Katie Smith and former assistant director Karen Sauers. (According to the letter, Sauers, who oversaw the Children Services supervisors, has also resigned.)

The Highland County Press has reached out to the commission for comment on the letter. Commission President Jeff Duncan said the board of commissioners is not responding to the letter. "We are already aware of issues at JFS and are working to resolve them," he said. 

The letter included allegations about lack of direction at the office and “unsafe” decision making, among other concerns. The letter alleges that Smith has been “on vacation for three weeks.” According to Highland County Auditor Bill Fawley, Smith remained on the payroll, under active pay status, from April 1-26. According to Duncan, the outgoing director has been using leave available to her to keep her in payroll status during the time in question. 

“Where is our director?” the letter from Children Services employees asks. “On vacation for three weeks, no one to override safety decisions that are being made.”

The letter says that there are “safety issues” occurring on a “daily” basis with no current oversight in the JFS office due to the absence of the director and assistant director. The employees wrote, “Many of us are concerned that a child is going to get hurt or die when we are supposed to be protecting these children.”

“There are concerns that are safety issues that we feel have not been handled correctly in our office,” the letter says. “These issues continue daily and without any director/assistant director there is no one for us to turn to. The director is now on vacation until May, and we have no one with the ability to oversee what is happening.”

According to the letter, Sauers assisted in the hiring of new supervisors for Children Services before leaving her position. The workers expressed concerns on these supervisors’ qualifications.

“The administrator gave her notice, and the agency advertised for three supervisors to be hired,” the letter says. “One for ongoing, one for intake and the last for placement/kinship/adoption. Two of the supervisors were hired within even though there were others internally that were more qualified.

“The third one was hired externally and has not been a supervisor nor had CORE training. Then the assistant director gave her notice, and three new supervisors were hired. The assistant director was in on the hiring, and then she left.

“The three new supervisors have no supervisory experience and have not even taken the CORE Supervisor required training,” the letter continues. “The decisions that they are making are unsafe for the children that we serve. One of the supervisors has had cases dismissed by the judge due to [shoddy] case work. You have seasonal (sic) workers that are concerned that they are making these irrational decisions.”

The letter referenced a report Katie Smith made to commissioners in August 2020, which she later “clarified.” On Aug. 19, Smith reported that Highland County currently has 190 children in care, 37 of whom are in “permanent custody” and need adoptive homes. Of those 37, “more than half are in current homes who want to adopt them, but because of the court backup and slowdown over the coronavirus, court hearings have been delayed,” she said.

In response, Highland County Juvenile and Probate Court Judge Kevin Greer wrote, in part: "Mrs. Smith, the Court is concerned with the attempt to deflect your apparent inability to address the needs of abused, neglected and dependent children in our direction. This Court has not closed one minute during the coronavirus issue. We have been open and fully operational from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. every day. There is no Court backup or slowdown.

"If there are 37 children in permanent custody that are ready for adoption, why haven’t adoption petitions been filed? Do you realize the last Adoption Petition filed in this Court by Children Services was November 6, 2019? That Petition was quickly heard and approved. To criticize this Court in the manner you chose is untruthful, inaccurate and ill-advised."

Smith later clarified that “the delay I was referring to was not an issue we have experienced with our local courts.”

“There have been many issues with Katie [Smith, director] and Karen [Sauers], so you can see the concern of the workers in the office,” the Children Services employees wrote to commissioners. “This started several months ago with newspaper articles concerning statements that Katie Smith stated incorrect information concerning Highland County Juvenile Court.”

The employees went on to voice concerns about cases being “screened out” of the Children Services system against caseworkers’ recommendations.

The Highland County Press
has reported on several of these alleged incidents in the past few months. During these hearings, Judge Greer has expressed concern regarding the agency. Allegations in these hearings include:

• On April 22, 2021, Greer issued an emergency order granting temporary custody of four children allegedly abused by their grandmother, who was their primary caregiver. The complaint was filed in court 135 days after the abuse was first reported.

• An order of no contact was granted Dec. 16, 2020, for a 6-week-old alleged dependent child whose mother, living in Highland County, was awaiting sentencing on child endangering charges in Adams County. The Adams County Children Services Agency said in the complaint filed in Juvenile Court that “Highland County Children Services Agency refused the initial referral.” The mother was later sentenced to six years in prison, according to court records.

• An emergency custody order was granted for a child in an unrelated case Dec. 16, during whose hearing Greer stated, “Somebody’s going to end up getting seriously injured or worse because of the decisions made by our Children Services.” That case involved a child who was placed in protective custody Oct. 20 after a report of alleged drug abuse and domestic violence in the home, then placed back in the home Nov. 18. The complaint filed in Juvenile Court said the “agency determined the home was not unsafe for [the child]” because the alleged drug use did not occur around the child. The child was later placed in another home Dec. 8, and on Dec. 15 it was discovered that the child was staying with another alleged drug user who also allegedly “slit their own throat” in front of the child.

“Cases that are coming in are being screened out, and they should not be,” the letter from Children Services employees says. “Many of us have sat in on the screenings to voice our input and are told no, we are not screening something in. As seasonal (sic) workers, our jobs are to make sure that the children are safe, that is our priority. Many of us are concerned that a child is going to get hurt or die when we are supposed to be protecting these children.

“Our judge was concerned at the lack of management skills with the previous management, and we feel that he is just now seeing how this management will handle things.”

The undated letter from Children Services employees says, “As a worker, I saw the commissioners come into our office today to talk with the supervisors. Many of the workers have concerns that we feel need addressed. We have attempted to have a meeting with the commissioners and have not had any response.”

The Highland County Press was told that commissioners met with JFS employees on Monday, April 26. According to commission clerk Mary Remsing, the meeting was not open to the public.

The Children Services workers concluded their letter with concerns regarding conflicting guidance on work-from-home orders during the pandemic. They questioned whether commissioners ordered employees to return to in-office work or if it was a “power trip” by new supervisors.

According to the letter, employees have been working from home “under the commissioners’ direction” since March 2020, due to the pandemic.

“We all signed a work from home contact, and our understanding [is] this has not been rescinded by the commissioners’ office,” the letter says. “In May, we were able to resume visits and [were] asked to come in one or two days a week. The employees staggered the days so that there would not be a lot of employees in the office at the same time.”

On the date the letter to commissioners was written, the Children Services department said they received an email stating they are “required to come back into the office.”

“They said it was under the commissioners’ direction,” the letter says. “By bringing everyone back into the office, there will be 16 people sitting on top of each other only separated by cubicles. There are two employees that have autoimmune deficiencies and are in this group of 16.

“We have all worked from home this past year and have been productive, if not more productive, in our homes. To bring us back into the office when the State of Ohio is still under No. 2 Risk continues to be an unneeded risk for our employees.

“The concern with the new supervisors is that they are making statements that are not true, and it appears it is a power trip,” the letter continues. “Our seasonal (sic) workers are just as productive at home as they are in the office. It appears that they are grouping all of us into one group for those that are not productive. It is my understanding that we are the only unit coming back into the office. As seasonal (sic) workers we are asking, please check into these issues.”

The letter ends by asking, “Did the commissioners demand that everyone come back into the office immediately as stated in our email?”