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Short-term, emergency bed space for teens in crisis opens

But is just the beginning of tackling the county's placement problem
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Posted at 7:05 PM, Mar 30, 2023

CLEVELAND — News 5 has been following the urgent placement problem in the child welfare system, and there’s new hope for some of our most vulnerable children in Cuyahoga County.

For several years, hard-to-place teens were waiting much longer than the usual 24-hour turnaround time for placement in a foster home or other bed space. That meant some were living at the Jane Edna Hunter Social Services Center in downtown Cleveland, which led to safety concerns for the kids and the staff.

But late last year, the county passed emergency legislation and funding to help reduce the problem.

T-Suites was a big part of that effort. T-Suites stands for Teen Suites, and it opened earlier this year.

It is located in a renovated wing of the Cleveland Christian Home, which is now a partner of The Centers, the agency that opened T-Suites within just a few months.

It is an 8-bedroom facility that provides a unique one-to-one ratio of staff to kids — kids who often have experienced trauma.

The new, short-term emergency bed space is on Cleveland’s west side.

"We wanted T-Suites to get away from an institutionalized feel and make it feel more like home," said DD Tanks, director of residential services at T-Suites.

It provides a soft place to land for 12-18-year-olds in all levels of county custody while they await placement.

These young people have the highest needs for emotional, behavioral and mental health, including diversion from the juvenile court system.

They are the hardest to place, experience the longest wait times, and had nowhere to go -- until now.

T-Suites can't deny or eject a child referred to them, which didn't exist in Cuyahoga County.

"To be in a space where we have the opportunity to treat them as kids and not as their condition or as their history or as their trauma but work with them as young people - it's phenomenal," said Tanks. "That's why this needs to exist, because they get the opportunity, while they're waiting to go somewhere else, to feel value, worth, cared about."

"It's challenging, but I think things are going well," said Eric Morse, CEO of The Centers.

Morse says they've had up to seven kids. Currently, there's five, and they anticipate serving 100 a year.

"This place is being utilized really well and we want to keep that going, but we want to continue to work with the county and all of our partners and figure out how do we take on the next issue," he said.

One of the next big issues, he says, is residential treatment beds.

The director of the Cuyahoga County Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees DCFS, says over the past decade they've lost 200-300 residential treatment beds. As a result, it's become harder to find placement for these young people with greater needs. Sometimes, the closest bed space to open or accept them is out of state.

"Although our custody numbers have continued to drop over the year, maybe a 6% decrease in custody, the kids who need this level of care have remained the same, and so we know we need additional capacity," said Jacqueline Fletcher, interim director of the Department of Children and Family Services.

"This is hope, finally hope,” said Cheryl Zinte.

It is about providing hope for kids and families like Zinter's. She says her son was one of the first at T-Suites and she saw improvements in him during visits.

She talked with us last year as well, about her concerns of children living for extended periods of time at the Jane Edna Hunter Social Services Building in Downtown Cleveland, including her son.

She adopted him as a baby and says he’s now battling severe behavioral and mental health issues.

She says it took more than a year for her and the social worker to find a residential treatment center that would accept him.

Zinter has fostered for years. She says she'll soon finalize her fifth adoption and says often these children need additional care. If it’s not available, she says hurt children will often hurt themselves or others, and that's why places like T-Suites are so important and a great start.

"We have children, we’ve always had children with mental health issues, and how we treat them as children is going to reflect how they become adults," she said.

“What we want to do is create the most immediate place to place them that is fitting for their needs, welcoming to what they need, and this is what T-Suites is all about,” said Chris Ronayne, Cuyahoga County Executive. “I live in this neighborhood and I’m glad to see the reuse of this building for this purpose. How we as a society should be judged is by how we treat our children and seniors, and in this case, the Department of Children and Family Services has been a great conduit to get kids what they need.”

Ronayne said he would also be willing to dedicate more money to the issue and lean into the state and federal government to help bring some dollars back to help, as well.

He says he’s talking with his partners at the county and The Centers about other opportunities to provide this kind of capacity somewhere else in the community.

There is room at the Cleveland Christian Home, where T-Suites is located, to possibly add up to 30 more beds.

Discussions on how best to use the space and funding to possibly renovate those wings will continue. Morse estimates it would cost $7 million to renovate the three wings.

This placement problem isn't just here at home, but nationally.

Those close to the issue say it's driven by a decline in the number of specialized residential treatment facilities and services for kids, fewer foster families, more children entering the system in recent years, and staffing shortages.

Fletcher says they've seen incremental improvements in staffing at DCFS since increasing starting pay late last year.

"Up maybe 4% since the pay increase," she said. "We have a new worker class starting next month with 29 candidates, which is probably one of our largest new-worker classes in years."

Fletcher says they've also prioritized listening to their staff and giving them a bigger voice at the table to discuss issues, concerns and solutions.

She says she believes they're moving in the right direction, and calls T-Suites welcomed support, as they continue to work together with all invested parties to solve these problems and make sure they're reducing the trauma, harm and risk to the child.

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