CLEVELAND — Some Northeast Ohio foster parents are demanding a change in Ohio custody law, a kinship law they believe could be unduly placing some children at risk. It transfers children to their next-of-kin when custody is taken from their parents, no matter how long the child has been in foster care.
Former foster mother Michelle McManus said she believes 3-year-old Kemari Hampton would still be alive if Ohio law didn't require children services to seek next-of-kin as first choice for custody, no matter how long a child has been in foster care.
McManus said Kemari was turned over to his aunt, 27-year-old India Rogers, and her boyfriend, 29-year-old Jovan Switzer in October 2018, even though she said a children services case worker was aware the young child was held at MetroHealth Medical Center with signs of abuse while staying at the aunt's home.
Both Switzer and Rogers are now charged with murder after investigators said Kemari died from blunt force trauma.
“She didn’t investigate them. She didn’t open an investigation against the aunt and boyfriend. She didn’t remove him from the home at that time, that was a Tuesday, and seven days later is when he passed away,” McManus said.
“This aunt has no medical experience, has never cared for him a day in his life, has never been to any of his medical surgeries, but she’s able to care for him just because she’s a blood relative?"
McManus is asking that Ohio change its custody law to a law similar to legislation just passed in Georgia, which would limit kinship preference to just six months, and after that time, next-of-kin would be on a level playing field with foster parents in how children services would determine the best home for a child.
Cyrill and Michelle Kleem of Berea are foster parents who are also demanding a change in Ohio law.
They are hoping Cuyahoga County Children Services will investigate further into grandparents who want custody of a young baby girl they have been caring for since she was abandoned by her mother when the child was just three days old.
The Kleem's claim the Missouri grandparents told them they adopted the baby's mother, but then gave the mother up to a girl's home when she was 12-year old.
“This isn’t really the definition of family that I was anticipating. I was anticipating legitimate grandparents, not ones that relinquished custody of an adopted child,” Cyril Kleem said.
"100% I think the system needs to re-examined from all sorts of angles, not just this one in particular, where they are so insistent in getting these kids with family members.”
Cuyahoga County responded to our story, and told News 5 a decision has not been made in the case involving the Kleem family, that the matter has now been turned over to the state, which is now working with children services in Missouri.
County spokeswoman Mary Louise Madigan issued the following statement:
"Our responsibility, under the law and stated in our mission, is to protect the child involved and work for her best interest. We are grateful to all our foster parents who open their homes and hearts to children who need stable, safe, but temporary care. We are obligated by law to identify relatives of the baby and determine if they are appropriate to care for her. Our work is difficult, and often met with frustration, but we will not waiver from our moral and legal responsibility."
Meanwhile Camille Myers-Kouris, of Elyria, has started a petition drive, calling for a limit in kinship preference in foster care in Ohio.
The online petition has already generated nearly 1,000 signatures in just a few weeks.
Father Lives Matter President Joe Jones organized an Aug. 30 protest in front of the children services Fulton Road facility, also asking for a change in state law.
Jones believes the current law is causing children services to make too many custody mistakes.
“I think people need to be evaluated more, there needs to be more training, especially with this decision making, and it needs to be more thought out,” Jones said.
“Because of poor decisions, children are being left in abusive homes that need to be taken out, and the kids that are being taken out don’t even need to be taken out," he said.