LIMA — Getting a visit from Allen County Children Services was terrifying for Shannon James. The agency had been “Public Enemy No. 1,” ever since she was removed from her home and put in foster care at age 6.
Today, after participating in a state pilot program, the mother of four sings the agency’s praises.
“They are not the big bad wolf that I knew them to be back when I was a foster child,” she said during a Wednesday breakfast celebrating the one-year anniversary of Alternative Response, a program that works to keep families together.
Since starting a year ago, Alternative Response has worked with 160 Allen County families. The state pilot program offers Children Services staff a different way to serve families other than just labeling alleged perpetrators and child victims.
“It removes the labels. There are no alleged perpetrators or child victims identified,” said Cyndi Scanland, intake and assessment director. “The focus really is on engaging families and partnering with them and identifying their concerns and strengths right from the beginning.”
Nearly 70 Ohio counties do the program, up from 40 a year ago. Within the next year, the program will be statewide, said Carla Carpenter, of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
The number of complaints coming into Children Services made the program attractive, Scanland said. It received 571 reports in 2008. It received 928 in 2012. The agency gradually implemented the program this past year in order to give staff time to develop solid practices.
While it is too early to get specific data, Scanland said feedback from families and staff shows success. Families don’t feel threatened, have been willing to work with staff and have been committed to making needed changes.
“When families work together and are invested in change, ultimately it is better for the child,” she said.
A domestic violence issue brought James together with Children Services and the Alternative Response program. She credits the program with helping her deal with the death of her youngest son, bringing her family closer together and helping her become a better parent.
“They are willing to help you. They don’t want to split up families and traumatize kids or the parents. They want to keep you together if at all possible,” said James, who voluntarily continues with the program. “I am trying to better myself and whatever information they can assist me with, I will take it and try to continue to grow.”