Juvenile and Probate Court candidates offer solutions to two major topics

Grace Scarberry, ASSISTANT EDITOR

Often times, Ashland County residents do not consider the number of children in foster care or the process it takes within the courtroom to put them in the safest environment possible. They fail to realize how bad the drug epidemic is, and how great of an effect it has on both parents and juveniles.

For attorneys Karen DeSanto Kellogg, David Hunter and Joe Kearns, these are the two biggest problems Ashland County faces within the Juvenile and Probate Court.

They have made it their mission to be elected as Juvenile and Probate Judge in the primary election on March 17. They all share their visions for Ashland County and possible solutions to the biggest problems affecting juveniles in the community.

As a whole, the candidates see few to no problems within the probate side of the court which handles Ohio’s guardianships, adoptions, name changes, etc.

Rather, they are focused on the two major issues affecting juveniles: drug use and the number of children in foster care.

There are currently over 200 children placed in foster care in Ashland County, and this number does not include the ones that were placed with relatives after being removed from homes.

Attorney Karen DeSanto Kellogg has a passion for helping children.

She is involved in many organizations alongside her job that have proven to her the importance of providing proper guidance for juveniles.

According to DeSanto Kellogg, research tells us that even though terrible things can happen to children, if they have just one person that is always consistently there for them, a lot of good things can happen and be learned. They can progress through the bad and have a better chance to overcome it and develop into contributing members of society someday, rather than repeating the cycle.

“The juveniles need more of that. They need more opportunities to develop close and connected relationships. I want to do more things as a judge that increase the opportunities that young people have for close connections with positive influences.

When he was just two-years old, one of DeSanto Kellogg’s five children suffered a stroke, which she feels has prepared her to be the best candidate running for this position.

“I didn’t realize it then. It just seemed like bad circumstances, but that really prepared me because through that and the things we went through with him…I got some good practice,” she said.

She learned how to better advocate for someone who couldn’t advocate for themselves in a system where it felt like nobody wanted to help, she said.

She now has experience with managing doctors, insurance, and the educational system which she feels tend to not be on your side in these instances.

“I learned the importance of speaking up for someone and the difference I would make in [my son’s] life. Then we started to figure out that we could do this for other people,” she said.

She feels her compassion and drive is what would make her a successful judge.

“What got me thinking about being a judge was really just my love for children and families,” she said. I absolutely love children and I am just so pleased when I see kids doing well and I see them getting through tough times.”

DeSanto Kellogg believes there is not just one set solution to solving the drug epidemic and lowering the number of children in foster care in the community, but rather it needs to be taken on a case by case basis to ensure the children end up in the proper care needed and the guardians are recovering.

However, she also believes preventative education on the topics and better communication between the court and parents is a step in the right direction, which, if elected, she plans to accomplish.

“My job is to tell you how to win. My job is not to sit here and be your cheerleader. I will, I’m going to encourage you, but my job is to tell you how to get your child back. I’ll lay it all out there for you,” she said. “I’ll give you the map, but you’re going to find your way.”

DeSanto Kellogg admits she doesn’t have all of the answers, but she is willing to work to better the system.

“I’m going to try to work with people to see how the court can change things to really make some positive influence in our community. I believe it’s possible. I believe I’m the person to do it.”

Attorney David Hunter based his ideas off of the processes used in courtrooms of surrounding counties.

“Every other county around Ashland has regular review hearings. Once the case is filed, they have a certain amount of time to what they call an adjudicatory hearing, but it’s a trial to determine if the child is abused, neglected or dependent,” he said.

From there they have a certain amount of time to go to disposition, also known as sentencing. Once that disposition is done in Ashland county those individuals don’t see the courtroom again until the annual review.

“Every other county around us does regular 90 day-120 day review hearings, so the court can stay on top of those cases, make sure they’re flowing properly, make sure that children services are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and see if the parents are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, but Ashland county doesn’t do that,” Hunter said.

For instance, if a couple splits up, there is currently nothing that establishes who gets custody. If the father wants to have rights to the child, he has to file with the juvenile court.

So, if he files that case, sometimes they don’t see the courtroom for six to nine months. For that period of time, the father would have no rights to that child, Hunter said while explaining his view of where the court is lacking.

Hunter then provided a possible solution to the problem.

“I’m not saying Judge Vercillo is doing it wrong, I just want to change how we do it.
Every other court around here gets Private Cases scheduled for some sort of initial hearing, pretrial or something within 30-60 days. That’s what I want to do. There’s no reason for those cases to be sitting for so long,” he said.

Additionally, if Hunter is elected, he said he will implement programs that assist families in kicking their drug habit to avoid kids being pulled out of homes, or, if they are, the kids are getting returned home.

Kicking this drug problem keeps the kids from being pulled from homes, which ultimately assists in Hunters plan to decrease the number of children in foster care.

Hunter plans on attending schools once a year with all students and discuss what they are seeing in classrooms, hallways, homes and the community in reference to bullying, sexting or drugs, and educate them on their decisions in order to try to keep them out of trouble.

Attorney Joe Kearns has always had a passion for law and believes he has a commitment to make to the community.

Born and raised in Ashland, Kearns loves the community and the practice of law. Paired with his time spent in juvenile court, he wants “to run for office to make a difference,” and “has the qualities and qualifications to be a judge to try to help out the children and families,” he said.

Kearns feels the biggest problem within juvenile court is the drug epidemic affecting both parents and children, and provided insight on how bad it truly is in the community.

“Detective Brian Evans told me heroin use is actually declining and it kind of surprised me. I said ‘declining?’ and he said ‘yeah, people are tired of dying,” Kearns said.

Now, people are turning back to the use of methamphetamine being made and shipped in large amounts from Mexico, which could be seen as even more dangerous than the heroin outbreak, according to Kearns.

“It’s deadly in a different way,” he said. “A person that’s been addicted to heroin and has been for a long time, that drug doesn’t really ravish the body. What happens is, the person gets strung out on it so they may not take care of their body like they should, but if they get off of it, a lot of times their body can recover.”

However, if a person who has been addicted to Methamphetamine tries to get off of it, it usually has destroyed the body and that individual has a low chance of survival.

In a juvenile court case, Kearns represented a 15- year-old girl who said she and her 13-year-old sister had been using methamphetamine. Later he had another case for a 16-year-old who was selling it.

“Back when heroin was big, the adults were the users causing the court cases that resulted in kids being removed from home. Now, with methamphetamine, the kids are using too. This is a problem the court is facing,” Kearns said.

Kearns will not deal with the punishment of any adult who uses, but as judge if a kid is dealing drugs, he says he can do a number of different things to solve the problems.

“It really just depends on how the child is. I could put the child in detention, which is jail for kids. Dealing with any narcotic is a felony if you are an adult, so I can get them committed to the Department of Youth Services, or I can put him in something called CCF, which is a midway between detention and Department of Youth Services. But, it’s all on a case-by-case basis.”

“I really just want to get them treatment.”

Kearns plans on implementing treatment programs, similar to Abraxas in Richland County, which, according to their website, delivers innovative, personalized and collaborative services, offers treatment, behavioral health services, educational & vocational support, life skills, family counseling, recreation and community engagement.

Kearns agrees the second biggest problem is the number of children in foster care.

“The problem with the number of kids in foster care is that it kind of weighs down the system because of funding constraints. You only have so much money out there to hire so many case workers,” he said.

The problem with this, Kearns said, is that then these case workers get an overload of cases since only so many can be paid. Many of these workers have up to 17 or 18 cases when they should only have 10.

“I do not blame the present juvenile court for that,” he said. “The current judge takes his time being thorough in order to make sure the kids are ending up in the proper location. He doesn’t want to put kids back with parents if it isn’t going to be a long-term safe environment, but he also doesn’t want to take away the parent’s rights to a child if he doesn’t need to. This thoroughness is what equates to the process taking longer.”

Kearns believes these problems may begin to be solved by making hearings stay on a regular basis and implementing a better computer system that will allow the court to keep those annual hearings on track in order to avoid getting behind.

The election will be held on March 17. Polls open at 6:30 a.m. and remain open until 7:30 p.m.
To vote early, all Ashland County residents must go to the Board of Elections office, but on Election Day, voters must report to their assigned precincts.