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State Supreme Court Examines Possible Conflict of Interest In Juvenile Court Foster Care Decisions

In about 25 Ohio counties -- including Licking, Fairfield and Pickaway - juvenile courts, not child services agencies - decide where to place delinquent or unruly youth. These so-called Four-E courts are reimbursed for a portion of their expenses by the federal government. But officials in Butler County are asking the state Supreme Court if the system creates a conflict of interest.

The questions raised are these. First, does the system violate the separation of powers? And second, is there a conflict of interest when a local court is reimbursed by the federal government based on the decision it makes. Judge Mark Schweikert is head of the Ohio Judicial Conference, the state sanctioned entity that's investigating the matter.

"Is there a conflict of interest when the court is reviewing the services provided by its own employees, deciding that the work is done properly, then certifying it to the federal government so that they can get money for it?"

28 IV-E courts are already operating in Ohio. In Butler County, which is waiting for its own IV-E certification, court officials are asking the state supreme court for an opinion in the matter. The director of Butler County's juvenile justice center - and an officer of the court -- does not believe there is a conflict. And, Rob Clevenger says, increased federal funding for county services is badly needed.

"IV-E pays for many of the services that our probation department is already providing," Clevenger says. "It just reimburses us for that, and what that does for us is to allow us to then use those dollars to sustain local initiatives."

Franklin County could soon be certified, too - joining the ranks of Licking, Fairfield and Pickaway counties in central Ohio that receive federal reimbursements. The head of Franklin County Children's Services, John Saros, says he's in favor of the change. He says that while his case workers focus on reunifying child with family or placing a child for adoption, juvenile courts are better able to help deter youth from repeating offenses.

"The probation officers and the staff at the juvenile court can do a very effective job of working on the issue of recidivism and delinquency more so than a social worker at children's services," Saros says. I think it is a waste of taxpayer resources to have both a probation officer and a social worker working with the same child and the same family."

The state's Job and Family Services department encourages the involvement of county courts. Spokesman Dennis Evans says the department will review the Ohio Judicial Conference's decision when it's released - probably before winter. But he says, the process maximizes assistance that troubled children receive.