ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine said a comprehensive review of Ohio's foster care system is needed.
Dewine hosted a "Child Safety Summit" Friday at Belmont College in St. Clairsville and invited local officials in the foster child system to participate.
His concern is that many youths spend years as foster children without finding a family - and that others are hurt by being reunited with the families from which they have been removed and returned to abusive situations.
Dewine - a father of eight and grandfather of 17 - said 80 percent of child deaths each year are the result of abuse and neglect.
He spoke of a federal law passed in 1980 called the "Reasonable Efforts Law." The measure required social workers to make "every reasonable effort" to keep children with their parents - or to develop a plan to return them to their home if a situation warranted they be removed.
Dewine said the law was later amended to mandate "the safety of the child comes first, and is always paramount."
"But I am concerned the letter of the law is not being followed, and that this is keeping children from finding a permanent and loving home," he said. "We need to change our culture, our attitude, and say, 'Enough is enough.'
"And at some point, we need to say to parents, 'We're done pretending you can be a parent. We hope you get your life together ... but this little girl or boy doesn't have the time for you to change. They need a loving home,'" he added.
Belmont County Juvenile/Probate Court Judge J. Mark Costine said removing a child from a home and terminating parental rights is something judges can't take lightly.
"It's akin to granting the death penalty," he said.
County Prosecutor Christopher Berhalter added children are the most vulnerable members of society, and that it isn't that often his office must take on a parental rights case.
"If my office is involved, something terrible has happened to a child," he said.
He said foster care matters should be imagined from the child's perspective.
"They are being removed from the only people they've ever known - their only home," he said.
A high school-age foster child called "Tabitha" also spoke, and she agreed it was daunting for her to be taken from her home and the situation there.
"Some foster children don't ever know abuse is wrong - it's the way they were raised," she said. "You only think, 'Why are they (child protective services) doing this?"
But Tabitha said unlike that of many foster children, her life has taken a positive turn. She noted she has a loving and nurturing foster family, has learned to drive, has a job and is looking at attending college.
Dwayne Pielech, director of the Belmont County Department of Job and Family Services, said in Belmont County many people are involved in determining the best course of action for a child in the foster care system - from their caseworker and guardian, to their school principal.
"We decide as a community what is in the best interest of the child," he said.