By DENISE GRANT
Hancock County’s renewed effort to keep children out of foster care is showing results.
In 2013, Hancock County Job & Family Services hired a part-time worker dedicated to finding relatives to help troubled families.
Diana Hoover, assistant director of Job & Family Services, said families have been receptive to the idea. Hoover is a former administrator for Children Protective Services.
The agency started 2013 with 54 children in foster care. This year, there are only 38.
In all, 18 children were adopted in Hancock County in 2013, and 13 children were returned to their birth families.
“We’ve been in the 50s for a number of years, but with the adoptions and the kids that went home, we had a good year,” said Butch Bycynski, director of Hancock County Job & Family Services.
Hancock County is responsible for paying the expense to care for foster children. The Hancock County commissioners agreed to a $500,000 budget for foster care, the same as last year.
To stay within its budget this year, the agency will have to keep the foster care numbers at around 36 children.
Bycynski told the commissioners during the agency’s budget hearing in November that the number is “iffy.” He said it’s a tough problem to gauge.
A new state rule, called “alternative response,” may help keep the number lower.
In mid-2013, Hancock County began working with a new state rule for investigating complaints about child abuse or neglect, Hoover said.
“Alternative response” offers families help to get back on track with issues like transportation, paying bills, supervision or housekeeping, when needed.
Under alternative response, “We don’t necessarily name someone as a perpetrator of child abuse or neglect,” Hoover said. “We look at what we can do to help them. We don’t use it for cases of physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, or when there is any crime and law enforcement involved,” Hoover said.
She said a classic example is when a 3-year-old child is found wandering unattended outside.
“That’s the first one that pops into my head,” Hoover said. “What is happening? It could be neglect. It could just be a mistake, or maybe that family needs some help.”
What about a family living in a home without water or heat?
“Again, that could be neglect, or maybe the family is just struggling financially and could use some help. We’ll work with them to get the utilities back. If it keeps happening, we might have to take a second look,” she said.
Bycynski said oftentimes, housekeeping is a family’s biggest challenge.
“We investigate it and say, ‘Hey, you need to clean up your home to keep your children.’ And then we find some ways to help. Maybe they need cleaning supplies. We can help with that,” he said.
Hoover said alternative response makes sense.
“When families want our help, of course, we have better success. If a family views us as an agency that is going to help, then we can work collaboratively to keep the child safe. That’s something we are willing to do,” Hoover said.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a corrected version of this story.