‘A problem that’s not going to go away:’ JFS director, commissioners discuss next steps after Children Services levy fails
Highland County Job & Family Services Director Jeremy Ratcliff is pictured during the Nov. 15 county commission meeting. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
One week removed from the November general election, Highland County commissioners Terry Britton, David Daniels and Brad Roades met with Highland County Job & Family Services Director Jeremy Ratcliff to discuss next steps for Children Services after their proposed levy failed.
Unofficial results showed the issue failing with 6,471 votes against the levy and 4,915 votes for the levy during the Nov. 7 general election.
As previously reported, commissioners voted in August to approve a request from Ratcliff to seek the five-year, one-mill replacement levy for Children Services, amid rising cases and associated costs for the agency over the past several years.
The current tax levy, which was first approved in November 2013 and renewed by voters in November 2018, is a five-year, .9-mill levy for Children Services placement costs and expires Dec. 31. Ratcliff said in May that the levy generates approximately $700,000 per year for the agency. The proposed levy replacement would have been an approximate increase of $12 per year per $100,000 valuation.
As of Wednesday, Ratcliff said the plan is to “try to re-strategize for maybe March and see what that looks like for a potential recommendation to you guys.”
The filing deadline for the primary is Dec. 20, and the primary election will be held March 19.
“I just wanted to touch base with you guys after the election results last week,” Ratcliff told commissioners. “I’m a little disappointed, obviously, in the results. We’ll have to regroup and re-strategize for our Children Services levy.”
Ratcliff said he was grateful for the support they received and the “nice committee of folks that helped during the two-month runup to the general election.” However, he emphasized throughout his meeting with commissioners that the reason for the levy still exists, and there is a very real need.
“It’s a problem that’s not going to go away,” Ratcliff said. “We're still approaching $4 million in placement costs this year. Two days ago, I checked the numbers, and we have 172 children in care.”
Ratcliff referenced the earlier portion of the Nov. 15 commissioners meeting, which included appointments with individuals from the county prosecutor’s office, probation office, drug task force and homeless shelter.
“We’ve talked about parental substance use, we've talked about parental overdoses, we've talked about hunger, we've talked about homelessness,” Ratcliff said. “Those are all reasons we open cases, and how many of those families have kids? Those are the families that we're serving, and that problem isn't going away.
“I think it is worth noting that at times, these issues can be somewhat siloed, and we can kind of just view them in that silo. In reality, they're not. We're all serving the same families, and how many of those families that we serve have kids, and they all end up at our doorstep at times.”
Another common theme throughout the meeting was that these agencies, including the homeless shelter (and the Alternatives to Violence Center, as Ratcliff mentioned), are always on call, with plans in place for a new recovery coordinator to be available to respond to drug overdoses. (See the story at: https://highlandcountypress.com/news/commisisoners-ok-plan-new-substanc….)
Children Services is no different, the JFS director said.
“That's hard to give those jobs away when your phone rings at 2 a.m. and it's law enforcement saying, ‘Hey, we're out here on scene of an overdose, and there's three kids in the back, we need somebody to respond,’” Ratcliff said. “That's what our folks do, and primarily there’s about three of them that do it.
“Those are the kids and the families that we're serving. And, you know, it's one thing to keep children safe for that two- or three-day period. It's another to keep them safe in a foster setting or even in a residential setting while the parents are working through whatever issues they had.”
Homelessness is also a reason for Children Services intervention in some instances, Ratcliff added, as the meeting included a proclamation for Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. (See: https://highlandcountypress.com/news/highland-county-commissioners-reco….)
“We do see families at times that housing may be the biggest barrier,” Ratcliff said. “All of those are reasons that we’re involved in Children Services, and those kids deserve that protection. That's what we're charged with doing. It has a cost, and this year, like I said, it's approaching $4 million. That's just placement costs, not not a penny of that includes salaries.”
Britton echoed his comments from the Nov. 8 commission meeting, telling Ratcliff he was “pretty disappointed in the results” of the levy failing.
“Like you said, this thing is not in a silo,” Britton said. “It goes through every agency. It starts with the overdose, then it goes to law enforcement, it goes to the courts, to the prosecutor, probation. It just hits them all.
“It’s unfortunate, but it's something we got to deal with, and the unfortunate thing is, it costs money to do that.”
Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins also shared her perspective, as she said something she hears from individuals is “Why is it my problem that mom and dad are drug addicts and they don't have a house? Why is it my problem to take care of those kids?
“I agree, it is not your problem that those two can't get clean, but it's not those kids’ fault, either,” Collins said. “We have a responsibility to them. They are the most vulnerable members of our society, and we have responsibility to those kiddos. I wish that it were possible for everyone that would vote on these levies to go out with one of [the Children Services] caseworkers in the middle of the night and see what these kids are surviving.”
Daniels said, “I’m sure that you have children as young as months old that you are taking care of.” Collins agreed, saying in some instances, “We are taking them from the hospital.”
“You stop and think about that young life starting out, and just the need to keep it safe, to keep it protected, and I know that's what you do,” Daniels said. “We know that you’ve got a need that has been going on, has been increasing probably every year for the past five six, seven, years.
“I know that there's going to be additional conversations in the next few weeks. We look forward to participating in those and working with you to meet the needs of those kids.”
Daniels emphasized that taking care of these children is the point, not providing funding for “an agency.”
“A lot of people think that we're meeting the needs of an agency, but we're not,” he said. “We're meeting the needs of children. I appreciate all the work that you and your staff do, and everybody who's involved with these situations.”
“The other thing that I wanted to point out is these children that fall into this vulnerable state, a lot of these kids follow the same path,” Britton said. “They've seen their parents do this stuff, and even though, they know it's wrong, that's just the lifestyle.”
To that point, Collins explained the reasoning for some of the more high-cost placements, such as residential housing facilities, for some of the children in the agency’s care.
“Jeremy talks about residential placement a lot, and maybe people don't understand this,” Collins said. “Sometimes kids are removed from situations that we can't imagine in our worst nightmares — severe child abuse, child neglect and sexual assault. Those kiddos sometimes do not know how to be with other kids, and they put other children in danger, because they don't realize what they're doing is wrong, because they don't know any other life. Like they don't know that that's not normal, because that's all they've grown up with, and sometimes those kids have to be placed in residential placement.
“They can't be placed with other children in a non-supervised setting, you know, in a foster home where there's not eyes on them 24/7. They have to be somewhere where they are in a therapeutic environment so that maybe they can be treated, to realize that this is not acceptable behavior. Those residential placements with that therapeutic aspect — that is extremely expensive placement for our agency, and we have lots of kids that fall into that. Primarily, it's because those kids are victims of sexual assault, sexual abuse.”
Ratcliff agreed, saying that the county has “multiple kids in those types of placements that are $10,000 per month, per child.
“Rightfully so, there's been a lot of talk and a lot of focus on substance use issues and parental substance use issues,” Ratcliff said. “Without getting too graphic, there are folks in the room who can speak to the sexual abuse that we're seeing in our kids, as [young as] under 1.
“I’ve held a 10-day-old baby in my arms that we had to remove, and I've had a 16-year-old boy come up and give one of my caseworkers a hug and say ‘thank you for getting me out of that situation.’ A 16-year-old male, that he didn't know where else to turn.”
“And I'm sure there's more out there that you're aware of because people haven't come forward,” Daniels said. “There’s a new case that’ll be here tomorrow.”
Ratcliff said he would be back “in the coming weeks” with a decision on whether the levy issue will reappear on the ballot in March.
“I would anticipate a recommendation to you guys in the coming weeks,” Ratcliff said. “If we're going to go on the ballot again, in March, we need to have that decided relatively soon and file with the board of elections. I think mid-December is our deadline there.
“Again, disappointed in the results. We understand. That really went into my thinking, even in November, where our current economy is, what we're asking of our citizens and what some of the demands they face are. I was blessed with a good group of folks that supported us. We just need to kind of regroup and see where we go from there.”