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Child abuse prevention promoted in Belmont County

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — To mark National Child Abuse Prevention Month, the Belmont County Board of Commissioners heard from Department of Job and Family Services Director Jeff Felton Wednesday, who spoke about his staff’s work with area children in need.

Talk concerned the needs of Belmont County families and children and the ones helped during 2020, as well as expectations going forward once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.

Children Services Department Administrator Christine Parker referred to a summary of activities, noting 50 children were in foster care on Jan. 1, 2020, with 29 entering foster care and 45 leaving foster care, leaving 34 children in foster homes as of Dec. 31. There were 50 in 2019 and 34 in 2018.

Parker said there are seven families taking classes to become foster families.

“At the end of 2020 we were down to 34 children, which is really good. As of today we have like one child in an institution,” Felton said. “We’re ahead of the curve when it comes to many other counties.”

Felton credited work with other agencies such as the Family and Children First Council, that works with the goal of providing services to parents without them having to relinquish custody.

“It really is a community effort,” he said.

Parker also said they are working with other agencies such as the Board of Developmental Disabilities for specialized treatment or placement.

“Through that partnership, what we started doing is providing in-home services. It’s working pretty well,” Parker said. She also mentioned partnerships with The Village Network. “We help find therapists and case managers going into the family’s home. They’re home three to five hours a week, providing services.”

The MRDD also provides a residential home on evenings and weekends as needed.

“Removing a child is very traumatic. Not only for the child, for the family, the staff, to see those emotions too,” Felton said. He said his department makes every effort to work with families.

“Once we step into your house, your family’s really never the same,” he said. “We’re very careful with how we present ourselves. We want to engage the family. We want the same thing the family wants.”

In answer to a question from Commissioner Jerry Echemann, Felton said the department must screen out false or malicious reports.

“There has to be a legitimate reason for us to screen in a referral,” he said.

He said his department responds to issues involving children 18 and younger, or possibly 21 and younger if the individual has special needs.

There were 1,154 reports in 2020, with 908 in 2019 and 750 in 2018. Felton elaborated, saying 214 reports were of serious concern, with an apparent perpetrator and victim, compared to 98 reports in 2019 and 111 in 2018. In 235 cases were matters of concern, but without allegations of abuse or neglect.

Nicole Couch, intake supervisor, said she looks for numbers to stabilize.

“I think we’re back on track to where we were prior to the pandemic,” she said.

Felton also has concerns that cases may have gone unreported.

“We were down a little bit, early on in the pandemic, but … we’re pretty much back to where we were. We want to get the calls that we need,” Felton said, adding that there are about 13,000 children in Belmont County and 12 staff members.

“We need community partners. We need neighbors. We need everybody to be concerned about children,” Felton said.

For more information, DJFS can be reached at 740-695-1075. The website is belmontcdjfs.com.

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