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2019 PCSAO Awards



Explore photos from the conference on Flickr. Thanks to Eddie Lebron of North Central Ohio Regional Training Center for capturing outstanding photos from all three days.

Social Media

Now that the conference is over, please join us on social media by sharing photos, best learnings, and fun times. Use the hashtags #2019PCSAOConference and #FosterHope4OHKids and find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Conference Information

Sponsors and Exhibitors

Thanks to UnitedHealthcare, our Ultimate Conference Champion, and to all of our sponsors for being part of the conference and demonstrating their commitment to supporting our child protection community. Networking sponsors CareSource, Molina Health Care, NECCO, Northwoods, and Pomegranate provided a relaxing appreciation social for attendees. We are grateful to the more than 45 exhibitors who displayed at the conference.


Child Advocate of the Year

Jerica Estle-Grooms

Jerica Estle-Grooms

On March 13 of this year, PCSAO received this email from Jill Wright, the director of Adams County Children Services:

“I am thinking about asking one of our emancipated youth, who grew up in congregate care, foster care, and was adopted to write a letter of support to the legislators regarding the increase in funding. What do you think? Is there a template she could follow?”

To which we replied, “I think that’s a good idea. Anytime legislators hear from ‘real people’ on these issues is a real plus.”

Not much more than a week later, Jill sent the letter. In her own words, Jerica shared her journey: entering foster care with her siblings at age 12, multiple placements throughout foster care, meeting her forever family at age 18, emancipating from care, entering and graduating from Marshall University with the support of the amazing Adams County Children Services team and her family. Jerica shared her story because she wanted to help other kids in Ohio’s foster care system.

We asked if Jerica would be willing to share her story more widely throughout the budget advocacy process, by joining myself and several local directors to testify before the House Finance Subcommittee on Health and Human Services and before the Senate Finance Committee. Without hesitation, she agreed and became a full partner in “telling the story” of the challenges and opportunities facing Ohio’s children services system.

When PCSAO recruits partners to join in more public advocacy opportunities, we always set aside plenty of time to “hand-hold” – that could be helping to draft testimony, rehearse possible media questions, coach on upcoming visits, etc. If we’re going to ask someone to do this work, we want to do our job to make sure our partner is supported and ready.

I can honestly say that wasn’t the case with Jerica. Jerica came to this work with a laser focus to be a voice for Ohio’s children and youth, based on her own experience. Instead of coaching Jerica, we simply provided opportunities and got out of her way. Her testimony in the House and Senate was compelling —- you could have heard a pin drop in those hearing rooms when she spoke. And, there were few dry eyes in the room. I had to pull myself together since I was the next witness after Jerica.

Jerica’s advocacy did not stop with testifying. She has met with her state senator and representative, she has met with staff in the Governor’s office and the Lieutenant Governor, she’s now part of a video produced by ODJFS that is focused on recruiting foster parents, and she has been interviewed by several media outlets.

Jerica does not shy away from the hard truths embedded in her journey. She knows what it’s like to lose parents and her family to addiction, to close herself off to avoid pain, to not having a place to call home. Sharing those hard truths bring understanding, empathy, and motivation to make it better for others, to everyone who meets Jerica.

For these reasons, it is with much admiration and gratitude that we honor Jerica Estle-Grooms as the 2019 PCSAO Child Advocate of the Year.

Legislators of the Year

These awards recognize outstanding leadership – and action – by legislators on issues impacting children and families served by the children services system.

The Honorable Larry Householder

Larry Householder

Rep. Larry Householder is in his second consecutive term serving the people of the 72nd House district, which encompasses all of Coshocton and Perry counties, and part of Licking County. In January of this year, the Ohio House of Representatives elected Rep. Householder to serve as Speaker of the House for the 133rd General Assembly.

The Speaker previously served in the Ohio House from 1996 to 2004 and was elected to serve as Speaker in 2001 and again in 2003. The Speaker left office in 2004 due to term limits.

He has a focus on solving problems, including what he can do to help people make their lives better and what role government can play in that. We are honoring Speaker Householder as Legislator of the Year because he has extended that commitment to children services. Speaker Householder saw the devastation of children essentially raising themselves when he visited homes in his district. He knew he had to do something to improve their chance for a better life.

Speaker Larry Householder did just that with a bold proposal to double Ohio’s current county allocation for children services – standing up for children across the state who experience trauma, spend birthdays away from home in foster care, and grow up with reduced prospects for employment and stability. As Angela Sausser said in response, we were blown away.

That investment of an additional $30 million per year in the State Child Protection Allocation is not only a welcome solution to a severe crisis in foster care, but it puts us in a solid position to begin reforming our system so that in the long term we can start seeing better outcomes for children and families while saving taxpayer dollars.

For the first time, Ohio’s foster kids are being given hope and the attention they deserve by Ohio’s leaders, and we couldn’t be more grateful to Speaker Householder for showing that Ohio’s children finally have real champions on their side.

We are proud to present the 2019 PCSAO Legislator of the Year award to Speaker Larry Householder.

The Honorable Mark Romanchuk

Mark Romanchuk

Rep. Mark Romanchuk is serving his fourth term in the Ohio House of Representatives. He represents the 2nd House district, which comprises all of Richland County. Rep. Romanchuk owns a manufacturing business and is heavily involved in his community’s efforts to create jobs and workforce development. Fortunately for us, he brings that experience and expertise to bear on health and human services issues, including as chair of the Joint Medicaid Oversight Committee, chair of the House Finance Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, and as a member of the House Health Committee.

These official roles and titles convey the respect that Rep. Romanchuk’s colleagues hold for him. And that is important because it means the representative is in positions to help influence decisions and policy in these areas. We saw this in action again during this year’s budget process — as chair of the Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, Rep. Romanchuk put together a package of recommendations supporting the Governor’s proposed funding increases for the children services system and crafted additional language to strengthen provisions related to multi-system youth.

It is these specific proposals as well as for the way that Rep. Romanchuk goes about his work that sets him apart and has led us to honor him today.

Rep. Romanchuk seeks information and listens. He’s not afraid to tackle hard issues. He reaches out to stakeholders to learn more, to gain perspective, and then uses that information to help shape his own views and plans. The representative has served on the House Finance Committee for several terms now. Early in his tenure, PCSAO met with him to discuss our budget ask for children services. Most of that discussion focused on what children services is. Fast-forward to this budget cycle, and our meeting with Rep. Romanchuk was very different. He knows what children services is because he has sought out that information and built a relationship with the local agency. So the meeting could focus on what children services needs and why, rather than what children services is.

Rep. Romanchuk is committed. Running a business and being a representative can’t be easy to do at the same time, but the representative manages to do both well. He understands that policy impacts the “real-world,” including his own constituents and beyond, and is committed to doing his part to assure sound policy.

Finally, Rep. Romanchuk has heart. We have seen him chair lengthy, hours-long committee hearings without tiring or failing to treat the witnesses with respect and make sure they were heard. He checks in with stakeholders to make sure that his decisions are okay with them. He recognizes that some issues are too complex to rush through legislation but rather need more time, even when his passion is to fix it now. All of these are examples of what we mean by heart and why we are so pleased to present the 2019 PCSAO Legislator of the Year award to Rep. Mark Romanchuk.

Rising Up and Moving On

Jazmen, 18, Montgomery County

Jeniffer, 18, Franklin County

Justin, 18, Miami County

Alex, 17, Tuscarawas County

Roman, 18, Allen County

Families of the Year

Tamara Moreno & Family, Franklin County – Birth

Moreno Family

A single mother of three children with one on the way, Tamara Moreno was also caring for her mother, who had terminal cancer, when her three-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer. The stress exacerbated her own health problems, and eventually her children were placed in foster care.

Tamara worked hard on her case plan, completing the required counseling and parenting classes, obtaining stable housing, and attending her son’s medical appointments – all while working two jobs. Tamara’s caseworker advocated for the children to be returned home.

Fast-forward 11 years. Tamara now leads a strong family that can weather the challenges they face. The children continue to benefit from mentors recruited by Franklin County Children Services. Tamara says of them, “Our mentors are like family, and I am so thankful for their love and support.” Two of the mentors even walked Tamara down the aisle at her wedding. She still reaches out for support when she needs it, but her biggest achievements are her children: A daughter, on target to graduate this year, won a Congressional Art Award and has had her work displayed at the Columbus Museum of Art. Her son, in complete remission from cancer, is a tenth grader and member of the high school drumline working to graduate early. Two others are talented soccer players and volunteer their talents to help victims of human trafficking. Her youngest is an honor roll student in the fourth grade gifted and talented program for visual arts.

Tamara’s story is one of perseverance and sacrifice as she worked to reunify with her children. PCSAO is pleased to present Tamara Moreno and her family with a 2019 Family of the Year award.

Juanita Phifer & Family, Lorain County – Kinship

Phifer Family

In the history of the Family of the Year awards, this is a first: one of the most compelling recommendations for this family came from their landlord. Juanita Phifer took in six nieces and nephews in 2018. A product of the foster care system herself, Juanita did not want the siblings to be separated.

As a loving aunt, Juanita used to visit her family regularly from Kentucky and started to become concerned about their care. A short visit in 2018 turned into an extended stay when Lorain County Children Services intervened, and Juanita agreed to move back to Lorain County to provide kinship care. Before she could complete the rental application and sign a lease, the children could no longer stay safely in their own home. Temporarily without a home herself, Juanita was determined that the children would not go into foster care even for a little while. The landlord was on vacation in Las Vegas, and when he learned about Juanita’s circumstances, he put his vacation on hold to make arrangements for her to obtain the keys, connect the utilities, and move in with the children. The paperwork, he said, could wait until his return.

Juanita was granted legal custody of her nieces and nephews, then ranging in age from 5 to 13. She is their number-one protector. She continues to receive services from Lorain County Children Services kinship unit and works hard to ensure that the children’s needs are met. The kids have contact with their mother but consider Juanita to be “home.” Tickled by the success story, the landlord built a cement pad with a basketball hoop on the property and often serves as a mentor to the oldest boy, allowing him to work alongside him at his trucking company. When Juanita was recently scammed by an electric utility, the landlord worked to get her switched back to her original provider and resolve the charge.

PCSAO is pleased to present Juanita Phifer and her family with a 2019 Family of the Year award.

Richard & Christina Bennett, Butler County – Foster/Adoptive

Bennett Family

On the very day their foster care license was approved in 2013, Richard and Christina Bennett took placement of two young girls who remained with them for almost two years. The Bennetts, who have four biological children, were instrumental in facilitating a successful reunification with the girls’ maternal grandmother. Throughout the process, they supported the biological family, establishing a bond that continues today. They even took the girls on the family cruise this year.

That family vacation included 11 children, as the Bennetts have continued to foster – and adopt – with a firm commitment to reunification and, when possible, family preservation. In 2014, they accepted placement of a child with autism. He adjusted to the home, emulating the behaviors of the four biological and two foster children; his language exploded, his needs were met, and he thrived. Eli was adopted by the Bennetts even as they facilitated an ongoing connection with Eli’s biological parents. A sibling set of three was also adopted into the Bennett family when reunification was no longer possible, but Richard and Christina worked hard to reconnect with the children’s biological mother.

The list of foster children who flourished in the Bennett home before successfully reunifying with their bio family goes on, including children with severe trauma and medical needs. Richard and Christina are also active on Butler County’s Foster Parent Advisory Board, solving problems, improving communication with the agency, and recruiting and retaining other families. They have developed a camp for foster youth, mentored other foster caregivers, and opened their church to host the foster care training conference for the last three years. For all the appreciation shown to the Bennetts by agency staff, they give it right back, providing lunch for the entire staff on several occasions.

The Bennetts are patient and kind, taking everything in stride while focusing on their mission as foster and adoptive parents. PCSAO is pleased to present Richard and Christina Bennett and their family with a 2019 Family of the Year award.

Aaron Schreffler & Family, Stark County – Birth

Schreffler Family

Aaron Schreffler’s story proves that recovery and reunification are possible and demonstrates that caseworkers should never give up on fathers. Aaron’s substance abuse began as a way to alleviate pain from a work-related injury and led to an overdose in January 2018. He was administered four doses of Narcan before being revived. His three-year-old daughter was removed from his and his wife’s custody.

Initially, Aaron’s progress was slow, and agency staff began having doubts about whether reunification would be possible. A caseworker finally confronted Aaron about his commitment to maintaining sobriety, and at last Aaron acknowledged the need for treatment. He worked his program, developed healthy co-parenting strategies with his now ex-wife, and placed his daughter’s needs before his own. In June, Aaron achieved 16 months of sobriety, and custody of his daughter was returned to him.

Today, Aaron hopes to use his experience to help others by becoming a peer mentor and sober coach. PCSAO is pleased to present Aaron Schreffler and his family with a 2019 Family of the Year award.

Journalist of the Year

Jennifer Brindisi, WFMJ News Reporter, Youngstown

Jennifer Brindisi

A respected and trusted veteran news anchor and reporter, Jennifer Brindisi is also known throughout Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties and western Pennsylvania as an ardent champion of children and families.

In May 2017, Mahoning County Children Services launched a community outreach effort to bolster the number of licensed foster parents. Jennifer took notice. To heighten awareness of the need for caregivers and of issues affecting children and families, she launched a monthly TV segment. That segment evolved into a collaborative partnership with the agency, the “Kids Matter Project.” Now a monthly five-minute live TV segment – the longest lives segment available – is aired during the mid-day news program. There’s a special logo, and each segment is bookended by public service TV spots developed by the agency.

Monthly topics are identified in consultation with the agency. Stakeholders have been invited as guests. Topics have included Governor DeWine’s budget investments, holiday anxiety for foster and former foster youth, positive parenting tips, the opioid crisis, kinship care, and reunification. Agency events such as luncheons, holiday gift campaigns, and Wear Blue are also featured. Many of these topics would not have been given the focus they deserve on broadcast television.

Jennifer’s enthusiasm and compassion have made this segment a staple of the mid-day news lineup. Jennifer was willing to use her professional position to harness the power of television by creating an innovative and first-of-its-kind forum that reaches thousands of households in this viewing area. PCSAO is pleased to present Jennifer Brindisi of WFMJ with the 2019 Outstanding Journalist of the Year award.

Outstanding Agency Staff

Robin Bruno, Madison County JFS, Child Protection Supervisor of the Year

Robin Bruno

Our first award is for Outstanding Supervisor of the Year. This year’s winner has been the public face of her agency for nearly 20 years. And while she takes on multiple volunteer roles and recognizes community partners for their contributions, it is her leadership with and support for her staff that earns her recognition as supervisor of the year.

She is quick to recognize her team for the good work they do. She rewards her staff with lunch, gives flowers and special gifts, and works cases when staffing levels are short to ease their load. Always willing to step in and help, she is often hands-on when children must be removed, and she always has her staff’s back. When they make the wrong decision, she uses it as an opportunity for education and growth. She nominates families for awards, solicits donations for agency efforts, and volunteers for any project that will help others and contribute to the positive image of child protection. This supervisor is also committed to her own professional development – taking classes to expand her knowledge and build relationships with community providers.

If you have met this supervisor, you will know that one of her signature qualities is being direct, candid and – some would say – less than tactful. These qualities reflect her passion, commitment and advocacy on behalf of her staff and the children they protect. She has driven three hours one way to take a youth in care to celebrate her birthday, and has attended graduations and even a funeral to support youth. She is brutally honest, tells the most hilarious stories, and never lets her staff or her agency down, and for all that and more, PCSAO is pleased to present Robin Bruno of Madison County Job and Family Services with the 2019 Outstanding Child Protection Supervisor of the Year award.

Denise Nelson, Coshocton County JFS, Child Protection Caseworker of the Year

Denise Nelson

The winner of this year’s Outstanding Caseworker of the Year award could not be more appropriate in light of the biggest state budget investments in children services history made this year. A seasoned professional who began her career as a case aide, this worker tackles the most difficult cases involving sex abuse. She has educated herself about various subcultures in her rural community in order to break through barriers to serving children and families. She also works closely with law enforcement to ensure that interviews are thorough and complete.

This caseworker’s willingness to be blunt and put everything on the table with families has helped her develop relationships and trust in cases where otherwise a family might think she is hiding something. She makes herself available in emergency situations, even when she’s not working, to move these delicate cases forward.

Given her wisdom and experience, it’s no surprise that the agency turned to this caseworker to host legislators on a ridealong in the last two years, and her role in helping these lawmakers understand the challenges facing the child protection field made a significant difference. In the last biennium, the impression she made on Sen. Jay Hottinger made a critical last-minute difference in securing a $15 million increase in state funding for counties. After that, she literally redoubled her efforts by facilitating a ridealong with then-Rep./now Speaker Larry Householder, who in this biennium added $30 million to the county allocation. The credit for getting us to this point goes to a lot of people: Gov. Mike DeWine for making children services one of his top priorities, state representatives and senators who supported the Speaker’s added investment, agency directors and other stakeholders who met repeatedly with policy leaders to share their stories and their data. But we would be remiss if we did not recognize Denise Nelson as THE caseworker who made an impression on two VIPs over the course of two critical budgets. And for that, PCSAO is pleased to present Denise Nelson of Coshocton County Job and Family Services with the 2019 Outstanding Child Protection Worker of the Year award.

Kathy Thomas, Mahoning County Children Services, Child Protection Support Staff of the Year

Kathy Thomas

Support staff are the unsung heroes of children services agencies. They keep the lights on, get the bills paid, and make it possible for the caseworkers and supervisors to serve children and families. This year’s support staff of the year has tenure that stretches back 34 years, arrives early to work, does her job with efficiency and accuracy, and rarely calls off.

Having held various positions over more than three decades, she is the institutional memory of the agency. She can tell you why something is done the way it is, when it changed, and how it works. Her own supervisor admits that our award winner taught her how to supervise her. Her coworkers appreciate that she is consistent in demeanor and attitude; in fact, she’s one of the most approachable and friendly people in the agency. She is task oriented, reliable and always 100 percent accurate, but she also values relationships.

Accountability, honesty and reliability are hallmarks of her work, but open-mindedness and compassion are also traits recognized by fellow staff, foster and adoptive parents, and agency vendors. She is an outstanding leader and trainer in her unit and appreciated throughout the agency. PCSAO is pleased to present Kathy Thomas of Mahoning County Children Services with a 2019 Outstanding Child Protection Support Staff of the Year award.

Dan Schneider Leadership in Child Welfare Training

Sally Fitch

Sally Fitch

Sally has over 30 years of human services experience. She served as Program Director of the National Assault Prevention Center and consulted internationally to help implement sexual abuse prevention programs. She was a home-based specialist for at-risk families. She co-produced one of the first national videos on child sexual abuse prevention while an Assistant Director of Education and Training at Planned Parenthood. In addition, Sally was the President of Ohio’s coalition on domestic violence.

The Ohio Child Welfare Training Program gained a wonderful resource when Sally joined the Institute for Human Services, where she worked for 20 years. She helped developed sexual abuse and intimate partner violence trainings for child welfare professionals. She was integral in ensuring the state training program was competency based and in developing the skill-building and coaching initiatives and distance learning modules.