Yvette Helms speaks at a protest of working conditions in the Jane Edna Hunter Social Services Center, the headquarters for the Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services. The protest was organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union for child services workers.
Yvette Helms speaks at a protest of working conditions in the Jane Edna Hunter Social Services Center, the headquarters for the Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services. The protest was organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union for child services workers. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

Cuyahoga County child services workers this week protested working conditions at the Jane Edna Hunter Social Services Center. The office building has become a de facto overnight drop-in center for kids the county can’t place in foster care. 

Workers complain they’ve been the victims of assaults by teens who have some of the most challenges and trauma of all the kids in the county system. Two DCFS workers recently pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor assault charges stemming from an incident involving a teen temporarily housed at the building, Cleveland.com reported. They are expected back in court later this month. 

“We are here because we need a safe environment,” Yvette Helms, a nearly 17-year veteran of DCFS, said at the rally. “These kids need a safe environment.” 

It is perhaps one of the thorniest challenges confronting freshman Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne. The county has issued a request for proposals for a 16-bed facility meant to ease the pressure on the Jane Edna Hunter building. 

The county has been tracking the issue for more than a year – and so has our Cleveland Documenters team. Here’s what we can learn from Documenters’ notes from Children and Family Services Advisory Board meetings:

Documenters track child services issues

The board discussed children staying at the Jane Edna Hunter building as early as October 2021. A presentation to the board pointed out it can be traumatizing for a child to sleep on a cot while waiting for a foster placement. 

At that meeting, then-DCFS Director Cynthia Weiskittel said the county sees many kids from juvenile court whom foster families aren’t taking in, according to the notes. In June 2022, Weiskittel raised another issue to the advisory board: that some children were refusing placements. 

In December 2022, new DCFS Director Jacqueline Fletcher told the board the Centers for Family and Children would offer eight emergency beds for teens with nowhere else to go. Cleveland.com reported in July that county officials don’t view those beds as the best place for every child in limbo, however. 

Ronayne spoke to the board in June this year. He said solving child placement problems was like trying to “fix our bike while riding it.” The Jane Edna Hunter building should be the last place to keep kids, although the county is legally obligated to accept them, he said. 

Within a year, Ronayne said, he wants to execute a plan to divert children elsewhere, so they spend as little time as possible in the building. 

Beginning July 31, DCFS staff began confiscating kids’ phones and other possessions when they entered the Jane Edna Hunter building, according to August board meeting notes.

“The concern is that there is no real supervision for who the kids are contacting while they are in county custody,” the notes say, summarizing a DCFS presentation to the board. 

One other problem facing DCFS is that the county cannot prevent children from leaving the Jane Edna Hunter building if they want to go, notes from April say

Child services data on overnight stays and understaffing

The number of kids staying at the building fluctuates throughout the year. But there was a surge in overnight stays in the second quarter of 2023, advisory board data shows

On one night in June, 13 children were staying at the Jane Edna Hunter building, according to the board’s data – the highest figure since the board began collecting them in April 2022. By the end of the quarter, that number had fallen to just three. 

The average length of stay has declined in recent months. In June, the average overnight stay was 2.5 nights, down from 3.3 nights in March. The highest average stay recorded was 3.8 nights in July 2022. 

The data also shows that DCFS is understaffed. There were 152 caseworker vacancies in the second quarter of this year out of a total 509 positions. 

The county is making some headway against attrition, the numbers show. As of July, 51 caseworkers had left their jobs this year. The county has hired 82, August notes say

Social worker pay begins at $26 an hour, according to board data. 

What workers and Cuyahoga County are saying

At the rally, Helms said it will take more than one county agency to solve this problem. She wants the county executive, the mayor of Cleveland, County Council – everyone – involved. 

“We do this job out of the kindness of our hearts because we care about the children that are abused and neglected. We want them to be safe,” she said. “Ultimately we want them to go home where they belong.”

In an email to Signal Cleveland, county press secretary Jennifer Ciaccia wrote that officials are working to solve problems at the building:

We fully recognize the concerns raised by staff at Jane Edna Hunter. We understand the physical, mental, emotional, and professional challenges our employees face every day during this national placement and treatment crisis. 

While there is not one simple fix to this complex problem, we have taken numerous steps to address safety over the past year including modifications to the Jane Edna Hunter building, staffing support for the childcare room, and work is underway on a new Child Wellness Campus. The Child Wellness Campus will provide a safe place for children and teens to stay while receiving treatment and family resources. Ultimately, the ideal solution is to have a secure resource for children – that is not located in the Jane Edna Hunter building. 

We remain committed to the health, safety and wellness of all employees and the young people in our care.  The Childhood Wellness Campus Request for Proposals, posted July 21, 2023, resulted in four proposal submissions, which we look forward to reviewing.

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Government Reporter (he/him)
Nick joins us from the world of public radio. He has more than a decade experience covering politics and government in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. In 2021, he produced and hosted "After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor," an Ideastream Public Media podcast on the Cleveland mayoral race. He has also covered breaking news, opioid lawsuits and elections nationally for NPR.