The holidays are a difficult time for youngsters who find themselves in the foster care system, and Pat Williams fears that anticipated economic hardships in the coming months will result in even more children being forced into the system.

The holidays are a difficult time for youngsters who find themselves in the foster care system, and Pat Williams fears that anticipated economic hardships in the coming months will result in even more children being forced into the system.

Williams, an administrator with Union County Child Protective Services, said her office tries to have children make as many home visits as possible during the holidays. An attempt is made to get the youngsters home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

"Even if they can't go to their parents, maybe they can go to their grandparents," she said.

For those children who find themselves in the system and remain in foster homes, she said, there are gifts under the tree.

Shortly before Christmas, Williams said, there were 51 children in foster care in Union County, with about half being under the age of 12 and the other half under the age of 18.

"Ten of those kids are placed either with relatives or with kinship families," she said. "About half of them are up to age 12 and half are 13 to 18, so it is about even. Twenty-eight of them are placed in our foster homes."

Six children have been placed in the private network homes, which are foster homes licensed by private organizations throughout the state.

Most counties have their own foster care facilities with constant recruitment for more, Williams said, and then there are a variety of private agencies that also license homes.

"When we can't place a child in one of our own homes, but foster care is the level of care they need, we work with a variety of private agencies for placement" she said.

Six children from the county were in residential facilities on Dec. 15.

Williams said the residential facilities are more of an institutional setting for children, designed to provide special treatment for issues such as drugs, alcohol, behavioral problems and/or mental health.

"We don't have any in our county," she said.

Typically, the facilities are located in larger counties, Williams said, and they take in children from all over the state. There is a facility in southern Ohio, one in Mansfield and a drug and alcohol facility in Cincinnati.

"We try to make those short-term placements, six to 12 months," she said. "Sometimes it is shorter, maybe it is three to six months, and on occasion it is longer than that."

Union County has 32 licensed foster homes.

"Right now we have the largest number of foster families we have ever had," she said.

Child Protective Services comes into contact with the children in need of foster homes while investigating allegations of abuse, neglect and dependency.

"We do investigations," she said. "When cases warrant it we then open those families for ongoing services. When children are at risk, if they're going to remain in their homes then that's when we take custody and place them in a substitute care settings."

The preferred place to start is with other family members.

When that is not possible, she said, they turn to people who may not be related but have a relationship with the family and the child.

"We visit those homes," she said. "We make sure that they are safe, because they are not licensed by us, but we do some safety checking of the home, we do some interviewing of the people to make sure that it is a healthy placement."

The second line of defense is the foster home.

"Preferably in our own foster homes," Williams said, "but occasionally that is not possible."

She said they then turn to the private networks and then, on occasion, a residential program.

Every time children are removed, Child Protective Services have to go through the court system.

"Unless the family voluntarily asks us to do that for some reason," Williams said.

"That happens on occasion. A family may be having difficulty with their teenager and need a break. They may be being evicted and will be homeless for a short period of time. So on occasion we do that voluntarily, but otherwise it certainly requires court action and we can't do it without court action, unless the family does it voluntarily."

She and her staff, which is broken down into three teams, have to always be prepared.

"I certainly think we are seeing folks right now with more economic issues," said Williams. "We're seeing more issues with drugs and alcohol, and I think you could certainly associate that in some ways with economic hard times."

The number of children in the system before Christmas and New Year's was more than usual, according to Williams.

"Over the last year or the last year and a half, 18 months, we have seen an increase in the number of children coming in," she said. "We see more older kids coming in. When we see young kids coming in, it is often related to parental drug and alcohol use. I think we are seeing more kids coming into care whose parents are in prison. In some cases both parents are in prison."

Joe Float, the director of Job and Family Services, has had discussions with the Union County Commissioners regarding meetings with ViaQuest Foster Care.

ViaQuest is a healthcare company which provides services for seniors, those with developmental disabilities and youths with severe behavioral problems.

"I think the issue originally came up because we have a number of children who are involved with multiple systems," said Williams.

Float said on Dec. 12 that working with ViaQuest is only an idea that has not been fully developed.

Older children typically cross systems, such as being part of the juvenile court as well as the mental health system.

"It is a rare occasion when it is just our system that's involved," she said. "So the good news is we do a lot of work together."