Q. So, you've been executive director of Trumbull County Children Services for about a year now?
A. About a year and a half. I'm returning to Trumbull County after starting my career here and then spending 12 years as executive director of Jefferson County Children Services in Steubenville.
Q. Why did you get into the field of public children services?
A. It goes back to completing my master's degree at Kent State and wanting to actually be working at a site where I finished my master's paper, and I got my first job at what we then called the Trumbull County Welfare Department, which is now the Department of Job and Family Services. Indeed I did finish my master's when I was working there, and I just enjoyed public human services work and just stayed with it from there.
Q. Do you still deal with children much yourself?
A. Well, no. In an agency this size, I like to tell my folks, here I am on support staff, as are the secretaries and the bookkeepers and the other people who support the front-line social workers and childcare workers and the homemakers. My responsibilities are more administrative and working with the community than they are working with the children.
Q. What do you enjoy about the work?
A. I think in this kind of work you get to do a variety of different things. You do get to serve the public and take on a variety of challenges. Especially when you get into administrative aspects of public assistance work or public children-services work, you are dealing with the entire community. You are dealing with people in need of help, and also other community members that are important to support and to understand what the agency is doing. You are dealing with elected officials; you are dealing with board members.
Q. How many people work under you?
A. Approximately 170.
Q. And how many children do you care for?
A. In the course of a year, approximately 5,000 kids come to our attention at children services, but the number of kids who actually come into our care and custody is relatively few. We had about 161 kids who were in foster care for some period of time last year, for example.
Q. That must be hard on the kids.
A. Being separated from your parents is very difficult, and we are finally -- I think, as a social-work profession, and maybe more so as a community -- becoming aware that we must be very careful and sensitive to a lot of issues prior to recommending that children be removed from their home. Of course, any final decision in regard to that under our system is made by the court, but it is a very important decision and a very stressful one to make.
Children services, no matter where you would go in the country, is often an agency that has some controversy swirling around it, and that is because we get involved in some issues that people hold very close to their hearts, and they should.
I think in our country, of all the values that people hold, there are two values that are very important and very sacred. One value kind of goes along the line that people have the right to raise their kids the way they want to. They have the right to carry on traditions and perhaps instill in their own children values about child-rearing and discipline that they themselves had as kids. Related to that is that nobody should interfere with that or tell them what is right or wrong with those child-rearing practices.
On the other hand, we all share a value also in this country that no child should ever be hurt. It is a terrible tragedy when a child is hurt, and especially when that child is hurt at the hands of his own caretakers.
Human-services professionals have the job of coming down in the middle. So often, we will be criticized from both ends of the spectrum. Our job of finding the right balance, of being sensitive to people's rights while protecting children, is our challenge.
Q. Do you see a lot of cases of severe abuse?
A. Thankfully, no. I mean, if you would talk about severe abuse as kids who have been battered with broken limbs and scars and injuries that need to be treated by hospitalization, thankfully, those cases are few.
But I think what public children-services agencies are dealing with most often is the risk or the jeopardy of abuse because of families that are in trouble. It could be drug and alcohol abuse, could be mental-health issues, could be employment problems, just marital discord, and the reaction to those problems sometimes will put the children in jeopardy.
At agencies such as ours, the caseworkers who respond to those families have the difficult job of trying to help and support those families or suggesting ways those families can work better and be stronger. And balancing that thought and that consideration with when are the children at risk, when is the potential for harm so great that if something is not done soon, these kids could be harmed or hurt.
Q. It seems like it must add some stress to a stressful situation when a caseworker shows up at the door.
A. Quite honestly, I would say that it probably is stressful to be the subject of a report or a referral. That is why we are taking an approach we term family-centered. Our approach is that most families are working and functioning well most of the time. When children services is called, if the referral is legitimate, that means there has been some kind of a breakdown or some kind of a stumbling block to good family functioning.
We try to make the point right from the start with these families that we are not trying to cause further problems or to add to their stress, but to help them and to work together to see if there are indeed some problems that can be addressed and make life better for both the parents and the kids.
Q. I know that you are an Indians fan. What are some of your other interests outside of work?
A. I haven't been playing for the last couple of years, but tennis is an avid interest of mine. I like to read; I read at least a few newspapers a day -- including The Vindicator -- and keep up with public events.
Q. Who was your greatest influence as a child?
A. I think collectively, just a number of teachers that I had. I went to Cathedral Prep, which is a Catholic boys high school in Erie, Pa., then I went on to Gannon college, which is a Catholic college there. I just recall from my education that there were high expectations, it was fairly rigorous, and the message was [that] to do well in class, you had to be prepared and work hard. That was consistently put forth almost class by class by most of the teachers I had, and I really appreciated that.
Q. Do you have any children of your own?
A. I have three stepsons. They are all adults at this point in time. The youngest one is a junior at YSU, one boy is in the Navy, and the oldest one is in communications for United Steelworkers of America.
Q. What is the best day you have had on the job?
A. That's a good question. To work in this field for 25, 30 years, it is hard to divide it into best days and worst days or good days and bad days because every day has a little bit of both. There is probably not one day when you don't come across some problem or some case circumstances that don't take you back or startle you, but you can't have that ruin a good day.
I think a good day is any day that we know we are being responsive, we know that we are working with other agencies, we know that we are doing what we are set up to do, or that we know that we are getting our point across to the public about what it is that we do at children services.
X THE WRITER / Stephen Siff, Vindicator Trumbull Staff, conducted the interview.