Monday, May 31, 2021

Lisa Dickson named as 2021 REFCA Champion

Lisa Dickson serves as co-facilitator of the Overcoming Hurdles in Ohio Youth Advisory Board (OHIO YAB) and Communications Chair for Alumni of Care Together Improving Outcomes Now (ACTION) Ohio. She is the lead organizer of Ohio’s annual regional Thanksgiving Together celebrations for foster care teens and alumni. These positions are in a volunteer capacity, in addition to her full-time job.

Lisa emancipated early from foster care and entered college at age 16. Within a year, she experienced homelessness. During her time in college and graduate school, she visited former placements from her time in care, including group homes and an emergency shelter, to support fellow foster youth.

Beginning in 2006, Lisa has listened to the voices of young people in and from foster care in the state of Ohio, and empowered them to design proactive policy solutions, including the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act. She was a founding member and former chair of Ohio Reach, a statewide initiative to support post-secondary success for foster youth. She is deeply proud of the accomplishments of Ohio foster care youth and alumni, and grateful for allies and partners.

Monday, May 24, 2021

First time seeing Carly and the kiddos since February 2020


Link to individual photos.

By time we left Pittsburgh, Nathan and I were covered in princess and Pokémon stickers and tattoos, thanks to the loving ministrations of our beloved grandchildren.  

Six-year-old Edward had decided that, in his words: “My new name is Nana Lisa Grandpa Nathan Buck.” 

Edward and I made two books together; this was his idea. He brought in paper, folded it in half and stapled the fold.  At his direction, Edward and I illustrated each page with the habitat of his Pokémon stickers (land, water, sky) and then took turns carefully placing 3 or 4 Pokémon stickers on each page. 

We included illustrations of some of their powers (freeze rays, fire, Zzzzz for putting others to sleep). Edward then dictated, and I scribed, some somewhat repetitive dialogue between the characters:

- Character 1: I’m gonna get you.  
- Character 2: Aghhhhhhhhhh!

- Character 1: I’m gonna freeze you.  
- Character 2: Aghhhhhhhhhh!

- Character 1: I’m gonna poison you. 
- Character 2: Aghhhhhhhhhh!

- Character 1: I’m gonna burn you.  
- Character 2: Aghhhhhhhhhh!

Edward had me title both of the books: “Nana Lisa and Edward’s book.”  He had his mom read them multiple times, me read them, Nathan read them and before bedtime, he chose them as his bedtime story.

Four-year-old Fran’s penchant was for princesses. She followed Edward’s example and made a book. Her cute little voice is an adorable result of previous tonsil and adenoid removal. She’s been going to speech therapy to help with pronunciation.

Two-year-old William’s contributions were cuteness, lots of exploratory energy - and maybe a bit of pee.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

A Youth Ombudsman Office could have saved Ma'Khia Bryant's life

Ma'Khia Bryant death: Former foster-care kids say youth ombudsman in Ohio could make a difference
Ken Gordon, The Columbus Dispatch, May 12, 2021.

Nikki Chinn (left) and Deanna Jones (center) were among those who testified in front of an Ohio Senate committee last week about their experiences in foster care and the need for an independent youth ombudsman office. They were accompanied by Kim Eckhart (right) of the Children's Defense Fund-Ohio.

Deanna Jones stepped to a lectern in the Ohio Statehouse last week and told lawmakers that having a youth ombudsman office might have saved Ma’Khia Bryant’s life.

Jones spoke as one who, like Bryant, had been in foster care and knew from personal experience that having someone who will listen to a foster child’s concerns and take appropriate action can make all the difference.

Bryant, 16, was fatally shot by a Columbus police officer April 20 outside her Far East Side foster home. Bryant had a knife in her hand and had swung it at one woman and was threatening another when she was killed.

Exact circumstances of what led up to the incident remain unclear.

But Jones emphasized reports that Bryant and other foster children at the home appeared to be having trouble with several former foster children who had lived there, and that Bryant’s younger sister had called police in March and requested that she be removed from the home.

“I understand there are things that are debatable and that (Bryant) had a knife and that’s all some people saw,” said Jones, 39, “but honestly, I feel Ma’Khia was in survival mode, and that’s why I identified with her.”

Jones said during her rocky tenure in foster care in the 1980s and 1990s, she benefited from a sympathetic caseworker who listened to her complaints and removed her from several bad homes.

“I saw how my life could have ended if I had not had an advocate,” Jones said. “There were times when my rights and concerns were being violated, but I had someone to go to bat for me, and we don’t have that now.”

And that’s why Jones and several other former foster kids testified in front of an Ohio Senate committee last week in favor of ensuring that a newly created Youth Ombudsman Office is adequately funded and also fully independent of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which oversees the foster-care system.

Deanna Jones, of the East Side, testified last week in front of an Ohio Senate committee about her experience in foster care and the importance of establishing a youth ombudsman office that is independent of the state agency that oversees Ohio's Children Services' system.

The issue is emotional to former foster kids who viewed Bryant’s death as avoidable.

“To those of us from foster care, anyone who was in foster care is our brother and sister, so losing one of our sisters is heartbreaking to us,” said Nikki Chinn, 30, a Clintonville resident who said she endured abuse and neglect in the foster-care system. “There are so many different opinions people have of the situation, but the fact of the matter is that a young girl in the foster system died, and there was no reason she should have died."

Chinn was in and out of foster care from a very young age until, at age 14, her biological parents lost all parental rights, then she remained in foster care until she aged out at 18.

In one home, Chinn said, she and four other “foster sisters” were forced to share one bedroom with a bunk bed and a mattress. They took turns sharing the beds and sleeping on the floor. Meanwhile, they were not allowed to eat without permission, she said, and there were padlocks on the kitchen cabinets and refrigerator.

Chinn said they repeatedly complained to caseworkers, but, “it got turned around on us. The foster mother was able to convince the caseworker that it was a punishment for something we did wrong."

Kim Eckhart is the Kids COUNT project manager for the Children's Defense Fund-Ohio, a nonprofit organization focused on lifting kids out of poverty and protecting them from abuse and neglect.

She accompanied the former foster kids who testified last week.

“A lot of youth are blamed for being in foster care because of their behaviors, like they are responsible for the situation they are in,” she said. “They want to have someone who can really hear them from an unbiased perspective, which I hope is that this youth ombudsman office will be.”

One key state official said that will be the case. Kristi Burre is director of Children’s Initiatives for Gov. Mike DeWine and previously led DeWine’s Children Services Transformation Advisory Council, which last year included the creation of a youth ombudsman office among its 37 recommendations.

DeWine has been a strong advocate of children's services in general. He convinced lawmakers to increase Children Services' funding by $220 million in the current (2020-21) budget, and asked for another large increase ($78 million in 2022 alone) in the budget being debated now.

In February, he called for a "more compassionate and more child-centered" foster care and adoption system. "Our goal is to change the children's services system in the state of Ohio, and change it and get it right," he said.

The youth ombudsman office has a proposed budget of $1 million ($500,000 annually) for the state's next two-year budget (2022-23). That amount is a “placeholder” Burre said, and could change as lawmakers debate the budget.

“There is absolutely a sense of urgency (to set up the office),” she said. “It’s one of our top priorities.”

Burre also said she agrees with child-welfare advocates that the office will be “an impartial, neutral entity.”

According to information compiled by ACTION Ohio, a foster-care advocacy group, 21 states have youth ombudsman offices, with a wide range of structures. 

The group cited the systems in Delaware, Georgia and Texas as having best practices, much of that having to do with their independence from the state agencies that oversee foster care. The office in Texas, for example, reports directly to the state's legislature and governor.

Burre said the state's proposal is that the office will be funded by the Department of Job and Family Services.

Nikki Chinn, of Clintonville, talked about 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant's death and her own experiences in foster care as part of testimony before an Ohio Senate committee last week as they debated funding for a youth ombudsman office.

Chinn said if the state keeps the office within that department, “it will create a conflict of interest. You can't be the prosecutor and the defense attorney for the same case. It cannot be housed under JFS. There is no way you could be impartial and be paid by the same people who paid for the foster care placement."

And like Jones, Chinn talked about Ma’Khia Bryant in her testimony to lawmakers as they debate funding for the ombudsman office.

“I used that story,” she said. “I said, `This outcome could have been changed.’ I aged out (of the foster system) in 2008, but my story is still relevant. I wanted to show them (lawmakers) that these stories are still happening today.”

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Testimony before the Ohio Senate Finance Committee


Here is a link to testimony shared by Lisa Dickson today before the Senate Finance Committee regarding: 

1. What we are asking for in terms of a Youth Ombudsman Office

2. Why existing resources are not working to address this need

3. Why it must be autonomous and able to operate independently of ODJFS

4. Why it must be dedicated to youth and not combined with an office for caregivers

5. Why the voices of those with “lived experience” in foster care need to be included in its design

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

ABC6 On Your Side: Advocates fight for independent Ombudsman officer to help children in Ohio

"We want this office to be implemented correctly. Not just to say we did something. We want it to be structurally sound where it can actually serve children."

~ Quote from Jermaine Ferguson, which represents the stance of   Children's Defense Fund-Ohio, the OHIO YAB and ACTION Ohio.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Ongoing testimony for Youth Ombuds Office

It was vitally important that Nikki, Deanna and Juliana testified earlier this week and that Jermaine and Kim testified today, and it will be vitally important for all of us to stay engaged in this effort in order to safeguard what youth have asked for, which is:

- A Youth Ombuds Office, separate from any mechanism to serve foster caregivers 

- Able to operate independently and autonomously of ODJFS 

Once again, our advocacy efforts made the news: 

Children Services Ombudsman Office Added To Abuse Reporting Measure

The House on Thursday took a step toward the creation of an ombudsman office for the state's foster care system, although a leading child welfare advocacy group asked lawmakers to go further with the language.

The proposal to create an arbiter of conflicts within the children services system, which has been the subject of biennial budget (HB 110) testimony, was amended into separate legislation on child abuse reporting (HB 4) during its fourth hearing before the House Families Aging & Human Services Committee. The bill remains in committee.

Chair Rep. Susan Manchester (R-Lakeview) said the amendment, adopted without opposition, also expands the pool of qualified home study assessors for the foster care system. It is supported by the DeWine Administration, she said.

However, Jermaine Ferguson, speaking on behalf of the Children's Defense Fund-Ohio, ACTION Ohio, and the Ohio Youth Advisory Board, asked the committee "to add more robust language to the amendment…."

He requested that the committee:

  • Establish an independent and autonomous Youth Ombudsman Office outside of the Department of Jobs and Family Services.
  • Define the powers and duties of the office.
  • Explicitly state that the office be dedicated to youth and not serve both youth and caregivers.
  • Mandate that current and former foster youth be involved in the design and operation of the office.

"The Youth Ombudsman office should not be housed in the DJFS because the agency is solely responsible for the state's supervision of the child welfare system. There is at a minimum an appearance of a conflict of interest because the ombudsman, staffing, operations, and the budget are directly influenced by DJFS," he said. "The Youth Ombudsman office should not serve both youth and the caregiver – there must be independent mechanisms that serve youth and the family caregiver to prevent any appearance of a conflict of interest."

Chair Manchester said the decision was made to house the office withing ODJFS based on precedent and the focus of state resources. Regarding some of the specifics requested by the witness, she said policymakers did not want to be too descriptive with the language.

The chair also noted that a $1 million appropriation for the office mention by Mr. Ferguson and a subsequent witness had been removed by the House under the assumption that ODJFS could establish the program with existing resources. She added that HB4 does not include an appropriation for that purpose.

Rep. Thomas West (D-Canton) and other members questioned why the office should not focus on both youth and caregivers.

Mr. Ferguson said he's not saying caregivers should not be served, just that a separate independent office should be focused on youth.

Responding to a question from Rep. Tim Ginter (R-Salem), the witness said an ombudsman could initiate an investigation based on trends or when a youth or caseworker flags a problem.

Kim Eckhart, also with the Children's Defense Fund-Ohio, raised the same concerns with the amendment's approach by requesting the ombudsman office be independent and focused on youth.

She told Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Loveland) her group had not done cost estimates for the program but was asking that its funding be used in specific ways.

Responding to Rep. Stephanie Howse (D-Cleveland), Ms. Eckhart said of the original funding proposal, "I would say it's an under-estimate," especially of there were two separate offices for youth and caregivers.

The witness opined that it would be feasible to use that funding for an independent office with a separate line item.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Legislative testimony to establish a Youth Ombuds Office

Foster Youth Seek Independent Ombuds Program  
Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

Witnesses told a Senate panel Tuesday that they want a proposed foster youth ombuds office to be separate from the Department of Job and Family Services. 

Kim Eckhart, with the Children's Defense Fund of Ohio, told the Senate Health Committee that the language in the budget (HB 110) doesn't clarify that it will be independent or that it will particularly serve foster youth. The $1 million allocated in the spending bill could be used to begin a procurement process, with input from foster youth, to develop an outside ombudsman program. 

Deanna Jones, who is a former foster care youth and a caseworker in the foster care system, said an independent youth ombudsman office is needed. "I have heard stories in the community that youth have endured more trauma, more abuse, and more neglect as a result of feeling like they were not heard by their service team or the agency surrounding them," she said.

"Ohio children and teens who are experiencing abuse in biological, kinship, adoptive, foster, congregate care and residential placements deserve to be heard – but continue to report expressing their concerns, and not being listened to." 

She pointed to the story of Ma'Khia Bryant, who was killed by a Columbus police officer last month. In that case, there were previously reported issues with her foster placement that were not addressed. 

"Prior to her death, Ma'Khia and her sister reported that there were adult children in the foster home that were making them feel unwanted and unsafe," Ms. Jones said. "Lacking the current existence of a Youth Ombudsman Office, who also could they have called when they feel their service team was not able or willing responding to those concerns?" 

Nikki Chinn, a former foster youth, said current and former foster youth have advocated in recent years to address problems at residential facilities where abuse was reported, and officials did not at first take concerns seriously. 

Having an ombuds office serving youth could have led to complaints being investigated more quickly. "Having a Youth Ombudsman they could have called to investigate the issues and take appropriate action would have prevented these vulnerable young people from having to endure the abuse and trauma so many faced at the facilities," she said.

An office that tries to serve both foster youth and caregivers would have an inherent conflict of interest, she said. "Lessons learned from other states are that when an Ombudsman Office tries to serve both youth and adults, it ends up serving primarily adults." 

Juliana Barton, governmental liaison for ACTION Ohio, which represents foster care alumni, described her experience with abuse and said when she entered children services custody, she was asked why she hadn't reached out for help sooner. "An office designed by and serving youth and young adults could have prevented the years of abuse I suffered by providing an alternative mechanism to investigate the complaints against my father after children's services failed to intervene," she said. 

The advocates also urged members of the Senate General Government Budget TrackCommittee to establish the office, stressing the need for the ombudsman to be an independent entity built with the input of former foster youth. 

When asked, witnesses acknowledged that they are somewhat late given the looming deadline later this month for amendments to the budget. A version of the amendment is currently being drafting, Ms. Eckhart said, and "we are definitely working as speedily as possible." 

Even if that deadline is missed, Sen. Steve Wilson (R-Maineville) and Sen. Bob Hackett (R-London) urged the witnesses to continue their efforts. "Sometimes you don't get things done in time for the budget," Sen. Hackett said. "Don't give up." Sen. Hackett added that although he agrees with the need for independence, "the ombudsman should work extremely closely with (ODJFS)." 

Sen. Hearcel Craig (D-Columbus) described his own family's experience adopting youth and navigating the system, telling witnesses: "When we say to you we appreciate you coming down it's not hyperbole." Regarding the office, he asked: "What do you see that framework looking like?" 

Ms. Jones said the office should not be "just paperwork" and that the statute should "contain some teeth" so the proposal is not brushed aside as just another recommendation. "I just want to really stress it needs to be independent," she asked. "I cannot stress that enough." 

Sen. George Lang (R-West Chester), noting his own experience as a foster child, asked the witnesses what they envision success looking like at the conclusion of the biennium. Ms. Eckhart said the state can look at several other states that have created such offices as a guide. But she acknowledged that the health and wellness of children is difficult to measure. "I would encourage you to spend a little bit more time putting some specificity on that," Sen. Lang replied.

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Press Release re: Youth Ombudsman Office

Ohio’s FY22-23 budget bill could pave the way to creating an Ombuds Office that would protect and give voice to youth in the foster care system.

Current and former foster youth are launching an advocacy campaign to develop an independent Ombuds Office to protect the rights of children and youth in care by investigating and resolving reports brought by youth themselves. The office would act as a safeguard to ensure that youth have someone to call who will listen and advocate for them.

“When I was a child, I used to wish that someone would stop by our house and that they would find us. It never happened. My summers were filled with abuse and fear… By providing a venue where the voices of youth can be heard without fear of retribution, this office will ensure the safety of Ohio’s youth,” said Jonathan Thomas, the NW Ambassador of the Overcoming Hurdles in Ohio Youth Advisory Board (OHIO YAB).

Thomas is one of the members of the YAB taking part in an advocacy campaign launched by CDF-Ohio, ACTION Ohio and the Ohio YAB to add provisions to the budget bill (HB110) that clearly state that the office should be dedicated to youth, independent from children’s services and designed by current and former foster youth. The Ohio YAB is a statewide organization of young people (aged 14-24) who have experienced foster care. ACTION Ohio (Alumni of Care Together Improving Outcomes Now Ohio (ACTION Ohio) is dedicated to improving outcomes for current and former foster care youth.

The campaign kicks off with the release of the Ombuds Office Legislative Issue Brief and advocacy toolkit followed by more than a dozen visits with legislators and youth with lived experience in foster care to explain the importance of this office. The campaign will ramp up in May during Foster Care Awareness Month and as the Ohio Senate holds hearings on the FY22-23 budget bill.

On May 17th, youth will present at the Ohio Legislative Children’s Caucus, a bipartisan, bicameral caucus devoted to championing children’s issues.

“The voices and involvement of those with lived experience is key to making this office a success. My recommendation for an ombudsman goes beyond just having an independent agency/office doing the necessary investigations and advocating for youth. I believe that having someone working in this office, with the experience of going through foster care, is essential. While anyone can work to understand what it is like to go through the system, there is no better expert than those that have directly experienced it,” said Jeremy Collier, former foster youth and current advocate.

Governor DeWine included $1 million, or $500,000 in each year of the FY22-23 biennial budget bill, HB110, to establish an Ombuds Office after the Children’s Services Transformation Advisory Council recommended creating an Ombuds Office for caregivers and youth in its 2020 report. However, the bill does not include a specific appropriation or clearly state that there will be an office dedicated to foster youth. It also does not clearly state that the office will be independent from the Department of Job and Family Services or that current and former foster youth will have a role in its design and implementation.

Advocates are excited to see the progress made but seek to highlight that key provisions must be added, specifically:

1. To clearly state that the future Youth Ombudsman Office will be dedicated to youth and not combined with an office for caregivers;

2. To establish the office as independent from children’s services; and

3. To mandate that this office be designed by current and former foster youth