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Reports show ‘epic failure’ at Cuyahoga County children services office, but officials say hands are tied

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 8/14/2022 Kaitlin Durbin,
The Jane Edna Hunter Social Services Center, 3955 Euclid Ave., is headquarters for Cuyahoga County's Children and Family Services offices. It also where many children in custody call home, when the county is unable to find them other placements. © Kaitlin Durbin/ The Jane Edna Hunter Social Services Center, 3955 Euclid Ave., is headquarters for Cuyahoga County's Children and Family Services offices. It also where many children in custody call home, when the county is unable to find them other placements.

CLEVELAND, Ohio – It has been over a month since two Division of Children and Family Services workers offered shocking accounts of abuse and sex trafficking of kids staying at the Jane Edna Hunter Social Services Center. But Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish has yet to publicly acknowledge a problem or map out a plan for how to protect youth.

Instead, Budish and other DCFS officials have indicated they’re powerless to stop it.

Following the DCFS workers’ allegations before county council in July of unanswered phone calls to the child abuse hotline, assaults on staff members, and youth permitted to roam freely in and out of the facility to prostitute themselves or traffic other vulnerable kids in custody, Director of Health and Human Services David Merriman said his hands are tied. He told concerned council members after the meeting that the county is legally required to accept any child coming to the office but has no authority to stop them from leaving.

And yet, neither county nor state officials have been able to explain, since then, what laws or policies support that position – or how they reconcile it with the county’s responsibility to keep children safe while in their custody.

At times, there have been more than a dozen children sleeping at the county office building because they’re unable to be cared for at home, and the county can’t otherwise find them safe placements in foster care, treatment centers or other residential care facilities. DCFS staff say they’re not equipped to manage them.

Cleveland police reports show youth ran away from the building at least 135 times in the first six months of this year. The department is required to file a missing person report each time a child leaves the building without permission and note when they return.

A sampling of those reports from late June reflected the revolving door that children services staff say they face. They document juveniles disappearing from the building for hours at a stretch, sometimes in the middle of the night. In one case, two teens left to get fast food and still hadn’t returned by the end of the month. ( did not ask for records past June 30.)

One of the reports also corroborated allegations that the no-stop policy was putting children at risk of sexual exploitation.

It described a scenario in which an 11-year-old girl awaiting placement in May left the building with two other juveniles, thinking they were heading somewhere to hang out. Instead, she said, one of them raped her.

They’d stopped at a park where, the girl said, the older teen “threatened to beat her ass” if she didn’t perform a sex act on the 13-year-old boy, details of which were redacted from Cleveland police’s incident report. The girl said “she didn’t want to do anything but felt like she had no choice” because the older girl had punched her before.

When it was over, the girl said she walked back to the county office with her abusers and reported the rape to a social worker. The 13-year-old boy, who told police the girl acted voluntarily on a dare, is being held in the Juvenile Detention Center on rape charges. The older girl, 15, was charged with coercion and contributing to the unruliness or delinquency of a minor.

It’s unclear where the case stands today, because the county shields criminal records involving juveniles.


Dasia Clemente, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, confirmed that agencies “are unable to detain or prevent children in custody from leaving” the office building, but she failed to explain where that guidance stems from.

Counties are not required to maintain a childcare room in their buildings and the state “does not have the authority to regulate” how each county office operates, Clemente said. State law does not specifically mention detention restrictions at public children’s services agencies. And it’s unclear whether restricting a child’s movement in and out of such a facility qualifies as a form of restraint, which the Ohio Revised Code and Ohio Administrative Code does regulate.

The state prohibits children’s residential centers, group homes and residential parenting facilities from using a wide range of disciplinary actions, including physical or mechanical restraint, except in extreme cases where the child is a risk to themselves or others. But a DCFS office building falls outside of that scope.

Still, disciplinary guidelines in the county’s policies and procedures manual seem to apply that law by prohibiting “substitute caregivers” from using “any form of chemical or mechanical restraint on a foster child or any device to prevent or restrict movement for reasons of punishment or for convenience.” The county’s policy says “strictly prohibited” forms of physical restraint could be literally tying a child down or “locking a child in a room, closet, basement, stairwell, pet cage, box, or any enclosed area.”

But like state law, the county’s manual doesn’t address whether or how county workers can prevent juveniles in their custody from walking out of the facility, when it’s clear that allowing them to do so would likely bring harm to themselves or other children in the county’s care. reached out to the state for clarification about the law and what other preventative measures agencies can take to discourage youth from leaving the building. On Thursday, a different state spokesman said they had “a bunch of code cites” to turn over but were waiting on summaries for them, but have not turned them over., this week, was also scheduled to interview county officials about DCFS operations, but some of those sources reportedly fell ill, and the meeting was cancelled without being rescheduled. The county also has not returned any records requested in July relating to the number of children staying at the facility or incident reports being filed there.


Without any clear way to keep children in custody inside the office building, the county and the state instead seem to be focusing on preventing youth from being sent to the building in the first place.

The county has been quietly implementing changes to address some of the concerns raised, but so far none of them have made a difference, according to four staff members, who agreed to speak to on the condition of anonymity. They cited department rules that require prior authorization to speak with media.

First, Budish assigned a full-time sheriff’s deputy to help protect staff from reported attacks, manage unruly youth and deter kids from walking out. Since then, staff have continued to report kids leaving, pulling the fire alarm, destroying county property, attempting to break into employee vehicles outside the office, and attacking employees, including punching them in the face.

The county expanded its provider list to give social workers more out-of-home placement options where they can send youth, including adding a third provider able to support youth with intensive or specialized mental health or medical needs. Those are the kids for whom the county most often struggles to find appropriate housing, Marcos Cortes with the Department of Health and Human Services told the county’s Board of Control in making the request.

Yet, staff continue to report up to six kids staying at the office at a time.

Last month, DCFS started working with Family First Village to help keep kids out of the building during the day. The center provides youth “enrichment programming and field trip excursions” between the hours of 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays.

“This is one of many efforts to assist our children in the building awaiting placement,” DCFS Senior Manager Joseph Jackson wrote in an email to staff announcing the new partnership, a copy of which was shared with “Please be patient with the roll-out of this program. We are looking forward to other opportunities, similar to this one, for our youth.”

But because the program is voluntary, staff say most kids refuse to go.

This month, the county also authorized spending nearly $27,000 to install 11 new keycard controls to various doors at the Jane Edna Hunter Building “to manage access to some stairwells, some hallways, and the Human Resources’ offices on site,” county records note.

Staff say that will only further protect management, who they accuse of sitting in their offices while frontline workers remain exposed. “That’s not helping any of us,” one worker told


The state is apparently pushing for greater action. Its Rapid Response Team has been working with the county to “identify potential gaps, link the county to resources, help the department enhance current systems, and identify areas for improvement,” Clemente said in an email earlier this month.

Over the last few weeks, she said the team has been helping to:

  • Facilitate meetings with the state Multi-System Youth (MSY) team to help find proper placements for kids currently
  • Identify sites that may be licensed as a crisis center to house children and youth on a short-term basis
  • Help refine the county’s emergency placement process to evaluate if there are additional resources which could be used to help secure timely, appropriate placements for youth. This review will also focus on those children that end up at the agency after hours or on weekends when the county has to take emergency custody
  • Implement the Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths (CANS) assessment tool for all youth who may require special placements based on the level of care needed
  • Review contracts and Memorandums of Understanding with community partners, including juvenile court, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and child advocacy centers, to clarify roles and responsibilities
  • Connect the county with two statewide initiatives on foster care recruitment and home assessors that can provide needed resources so counties “can focus on other daily operations”
  • Conduct weekly meetings with the county office to find other solutions for placements

Officials say finding proper placements for the kids has always been easier said than done.

In the majority of cases, the county can find housing for youth within 24 hours, but there remains a small percentage of kids who are denied placement because of their criminal history or severe medical or mental health conditions that require a higher level of care than most of the county’s providers can or are willing to accommodate. Those kids end up at the Jane Edna Hunter building.

In a conversation in council chambers after the DCFS workers’ July testimony, Budish said he instructed Merriman: “Forget the budget; find placements.” But not even offering agencies a blank check to take in more kids has worked.

Merriman told him providers don’t want to accept children with serious behavioral problems, and demand for bed space is so high that they don’t have to. They tell him they can take the so-called “good kids” and get paid the same for less hassle, he said.

The county has been seeking to contract with at least one provider that would be required to accept any youth that comes into the system. But Merriman said they’ve only received proposals from two providers, asking between $5-10 million, and those providers still want the right to refuse placements. The county is continuing to explore those contracts and other potential solutions.

Budish, in March, also pledged $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars to help find safer housing solutions. “No children should be staying overnight in an office building. None,” he said at the time, but he has not formally proposed specific spending to address it.

Council’s Chief of Staff Joseph Nanni, who was part of the conversation with Budish and Merriman, urged more expediency. He agreed the price tag may be high, “but the price tag is going to be much higher if, God forbid, something happens,” he told them.


Bad things are already happening.

Cleveland police incident reports cite numerous examples of youth harming themselves in the building, fighting with each other, destroying property, and running away.

There are also several examples of children becoming victims of sexual abuse while in custody.

The county tried to distance itself from that reality last month by contesting a headline that, it said, insinuated children were being raped in the building. “There was no rape inside the county’s Jane Edna Hunter building,” the statement said. Rather, the county sought to clarify, the 11-year-old in question was raped after running away from the facility.

The county did not respond to allegations that the policies and conditions inside the building were contributing to cases of sexual abuse and rape while children remain in the county’s care. has since learned about a 15-year-old girl who reported in September of 2021 that an 18-year-old male forced her to touch his penis while they were both staying at the Jane Edna Hunter building. The male was indicted on a charge of gross sexual imposition in May. The case is ongoing.

Then there’s the case of a 17-year-old girl, a habitual run away from the office, who staff believe is using the childcare room to find and recruit victims for sex trafficking.

In April, police reports indicate staff watched the teen leave with a man waiting in a vehicle outside of the building. She is “involved in human trafficking,” the report says.

The teen came back to the building at least nine times after that, a count of her missing persons reports show. On several of those occasions, staff said they saw her leaving with younger children, some of whom returned and said they were raped.

On the county’s website, it says it is DCFS’s mission “to assure children at risk of abuse and neglect are protected and nurtured...” It lists “safety, permanency, and well-being” as goals for every child who encounters the system. That includes ensuring every child’s “right to be protected from all forms of sexual exploitation,” as explicitly outlined by DCFS’s policies and procedures.

On all fronts, the agency is an “epic failure,” several staff members told

“Everyone knows this is going on,” one of the workers said. “Why go to a foster home when you can come to the Jane Edna Hunter building and have no rules and can run the place.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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