ONC reporting – Experts believe improving Ohio’s overwhelmed foster-care system requires implementing solutions to set families up for success long before a crisis occurs.

Dr. Joe Luria, physician and vice president of mental health operations for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, said families who are either frustrated with the health care system or can no longer manage their child’s behaviors end up in the emergency room as a last resort.

He wants to improve community education on mental health so caregivers can spot early warning signs of distress.

“Where they want to reach out as early as possible to their primary-care physicians, about understanding whether there is a potential mental-health issue and how that can be treated,” Luria explained.

Health care providers nationwide are grappling with a surge in young patients with psychiatric and substance use disorders. One 2021 study found a majority of the nation’s pediatric hospitals regularly keep kids overnight because there’s no space in psychiatric facilities.

Luria noted outpatient treatment can be effective at stabilizing a child experiencing serious mental health issues, but said the state needs the workforce and local infrastructure.

“I think looking for a solution, at times, outpatient is the right answer, but access to those specific outpatient levels of care is lacking,” Luria pointed out. “Families can wait long periods of time to access that level of care.”

Janet Kelly, special adviser to the Virginia governor’s Safe and Sound Task Force for children’s issues, said many kids, including those with serious behavioral and mental-health issues, had been sleeping in offices, hotels or emergency rooms, but the number was reduced by nearly 90% within a year.

She added the state did a deep dive on every single displaced child, and worked every web and corner of the care system to secure long-term housing and treatment.

“And we, for the very first time, had everyone kind of rowing in the same direction toward the same goal,” Kelly emphasized. “That’s what worked here.”

She added the problem is too big and complex for governments to tackle on their own, noting no state can solve the foster-care crisis without significant help from local communities and a strong workforce.

“And that is what we’ve seen work in order to keep these families together before children even enter the system,” Kelly stressed.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 27% of fos­ter chil­dren and youths in Ohio change living arrangements or placements at least twice a year.