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$312K in ARP funds allocated for the kids

Mahoning commissioners hoping to catch up on child-related cases

YOUNGSTOWN — The Mahoning County commissioners have allocated $312,000 in American Rescue Plan funds to helping the county prosecutor’s office and Mahoning County Children Services get caught up on abuse, neglect and dependent cases through the juvenile court.

Gina DeGenova Zawrotuk, the county’s chief assistant prosecutor, said the number of child-custody and serious cases forwarded to the prosecutor’s office by children services nearly doubled in the year leading up to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then, when the pandemic hit, the prosecutor’s office and Mahoning County Juvenile Court eliminated a lot of face-to-face interactions and handled many matters remotely or had to postpone them, which slowed down how quickly cases could be resolved, DeGenova Zawrotuk said.

Much of the process has returned to normal, but a lot of cases need the attention of an assistant prosecutor for hearings and other court-related work related to children, she said. The funding is for an additional assistant prosecutor to speed up the resolution of cases. Attorney Ebenezer Appayagei was hired at the prosecutor’s office this summer to fill that role. His salary is $60,000.

With children services cases, court cases have to be completed within certain time frames, DeGenova Zarwrotuk said.

“From our office’s perspective, we wanted to make sure the cases were handled quickly, the speed was the same, that the (resolutions of the cases) were entered into,” she said.

The rules for the $44 million in ARP money the county commissioners received allowed for this type of use, she said.

Part of Appayagei’s salary will be paid through the ARP funds through the end of 2024, she said.

The slowdown in court related matters associated with child abuse, neglect and dependency is similar to what occurred in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court with criminal trials, DeGenova Zawrotuk said.

“Trials were were put on hold for about a year, and then our office has been in trials it seems like almost every week” in recent months, she said.

Randall Muth, executive director of Mahoning County Children Services, said of the extra help at the prosecutor’s office: “It’s clear that effects the pandemic has had on all our systems will continue for years. The protection of abused and neglected children depends upon multiple systems such as children services, the courts, the prosecutor’s office and the commissioners having the capacity and willingness to work together.

“The children services board is very appreciative of the commissioners and prosecutor’s office understanding that our community will thrive if we all work together to honor our obligation to support and protect our young people.

The additional prosecutor position funded by ARP “will help make it possible to continue to ensure the safety, permanency and well-being of Mahoning County’s children despite the negative impact the pandemic has had and will continue to have.”

erunyan@vindy.com

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