All His Children

His predecessor was driven from town. But DCFS chief Bill Denihan has managed to survive and thrive in the toughest job in Ohio.

Maëry Lanahan The Barking Spider Saturday, February 10
In his bright, spacious corner office, on the third floor of a building no parent ever wants to visit, the man with the toughest job in Ohio looks up from paperwork spread before him and pauses before assessing his worst day of the last two years. "I was pissed," he says.

William M. Denihan figured that day wasn't going to be pleasant, but he had no idea just how awful it would be. It was March 2, 2000, and he had agreed to drive out to Chester Township for a community forum at West Geauga High School.

Twelve days earlier, three teenagers -- Wesley Pearson, Jill Holder, and Marcus Moorer -- hatched a plan to rob the township's Clark station on Mayfield Road. Around 11 p.m., when the store was supposed to close, Moorer and Pearson walked into the station while Holder waited outside as a lookout. As Pearson raided the cash register, Moorer squeezed off five rounds from a stolen .38-caliber revolver. The store's 19-year-old clerk, Danielle Kovacic, was shot three times -- twice in the back, once in the head -- and left to die in the back office. Kovacic's friend, Rachael Cogswell, happened to be in the store at the time. She was grazed by a bullet, but managed to survive.

After the shooting, Holder drove Moorer home, where he stayed up past midnight watching a basketball game on television.

The 15-year-old Moorer had been living in the Chester Township foster home of Billie and Halford Elston since 1998, when he'd moved there from Beech Brook, a treatment facility for kids with severe behavioral problems. As a ward of Cuyahoga County, however, he was ultimately the responsibility of the Department of Children and Family Services.

Now, two weeks after the shooting, more than 1,000 residents showed up at the West Geauga High gym looking for answers, and Denihan, the executive director of the DCFS, was supposed to provide them.

Township officials arranged the forum so Denihan and Beech Brook Director Mario Tonti could explain how problem kids from Cuyahoga County had ended up in this Geauga County hamlet. It was billed as a community discussion. But Denihan felt as if he'd walked into a rally for aspiring politicians who were pandering to their constituents' worst fears. Foster children were being called "terrorist kids." Residents wanted to know if the DCFS had "secretly" placed foster homes in their community. And hadn't they all moved to Chester to get away from those kinds of problems, from those kinds of people?

Denihan expected some of this. Four days after the shooting, two township trustees and a candidate for the Ohio House held a news conference at the murder site. The candidate, Jeffrey J. Fanger, called the Elston home a "criminal halfway house" and promised to introduce legislation requiring community notification for therapeutic foster homes.

While Denihan chafed at the rhetoric, he understood the anger, the need to assign blame. Yet he refused to indict the entire system because of one incident, especially since foster homes are a cornerstone of the agency's efforts to put kids in positive surroundings. "It's all so easy to blame a system and ignore the idiosyncrasies," he says. "I can't explain, nor can anybody else, why Marcus Moorer pulled the trigger."

Near the end of the evening, a woman fought her way through the packed bleachers to a microphone set up on the gymnasium floor. "I've been here all night, and I'm tired of hearing all these lies," she said. "I just want to know one thing: Who owns the Elstons' home?"

The crowd burst into applause. Denihan had heard the rumor -- that the county bought the home so it could dump dangerous kids in Geauga County -- but he couldn't stop the anger building inside him. "They were demonizing all foster families, all foster kids," he says.

"I could see by his body language, he was ready to blow," says his wife Mary, who accompanied him that night.

Denihan grabbed the microphone, but caught himself before saying something he'd regret. He stepped back and took a deep breath. He stood silently for so long that the crowd began to stir. Finally, he stepped back up to the microphone.

"The Elstons do," he said, then sat back down.

A woman from the Geauga County Prosecutor's Office picked up the microphone. She had gone to the county auditor's office, she chirped, and confirmed that, indeed, the Elstons did own the home.

Denihan couldn't believe it. Did she think the crowd assumed he was lying? That residents couldn't comprehend a foster family would own a home in their placid little corner of the world? To him, it summarized the whole evening -- the mistrust, the misinformation, the pointlessness of it all. As he recalls the moment a year later, his eyes narrow, and he shakes his head:

"What the fuck is that?"

William M. Denihan is responsible for 6,000 children, 1,200 employees, and $181 million. Last year, the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services received over 18,000 child abuse and neglect reports. Each has to be investigated. Half will be serious enough to merit ongoing attention. No other child welfare agency in the state comes close to the same volume of business.

The numbers are only part of it. The DCFS has neither the county's biggest budget nor the most employees, yet few would argue that it doesn't have the most difficult task: to define the line between protecting a child and preserving a family, a line that is nearly invisible and always moving.

Indeed, Denihan runs an agency that, by its very charge, can please no one for long. For some parents, the DCFS represents everything wrong with government. It's the ultimate heavy-handed bureaucracy, the province of overzealous social workers who snatch babies on scant evidence and deal with life's most sensitive issue -- the well-being of a child -- with all the precision of a backhoe.

At the same time, the DCFS is the easiest of targets for politicians and the media, an agency in which at-risk kids fall through the cracks because its workers are just too lazy or too dumb, a bureaucracy tailor-made for the ubiquitous "special investigation" on the nightly news. Despite its dramatic improvement since 1992, the DCFS has been so often described on television as "A System That Clearly Failed" that it's a wonder the phrase isn't on the agency's letterhead.

When Judith Goodhand, the last person to occupy the job, chose to resign, she told The Plain Dealer: "No one with a brain around here wants this job."

The Department of Children and Family Services, it often seems, doesn't need a director. It needs Solomon.

Which is why Denihan has the job. Over the last 30 years, while working for everybody from former Governor Richard Celeste to Cleveland Mayor Michael White, Denihan developed a reputation as a bureaucratic miracle worker, the man to call when everything goes to hell. "Mr. Fix-It" is how The Akron Beacon Journal described him. And that was in 1987.

"He's the kind of guy who can go into any situation, identify problems, come up with creative solutions, and move an agency forward," says Juvenile Court Administrative Judge Peter Sikora, who has known Denihan since the early '80s.

And while it's not difficult to find people willing to criticize the DCFS, finding people critical of Denihan is an entirely different matter. "My business is seeing what isn't working right and beating up those institutions," explains James Lardie, founder and director of For the Children, a local nonprofit advocacy group. "But it's hard for anybody, including me, to come at somebody who is basically doing everything he can to tell it like it is."

Now Denihan is contemplating a run for mayor of Cleveland. Whatever his chances, the fact that he can even consider a campaign says something about what he's done at the DCFS. For most people, the job would not be a springboard to office; it would be a political death sentence.

Not that Denihan ever thought this is where he'd be at this stage in life. In December 1998, after nine years of working for the City of Cleveland, he decided he'd spent enough time working for Michael White. He was leaving his post as the city's safety director. He wanted to do some consulting, spend more time with his family.

Instead, he took a job in which success goes unnoticed and failure means a dead kid's face on the front of the metro section. It's the kind of job where Denihan sometimes has to ask:

"What the fuck is that?"

He is tall, with a slight paunch, a head of white hair, and a pair of round, wire-rimmed glasses that make him look like the grandfather he is. He has 11 children and 18 grandchildren. He is 63, which means he can wear a cardigan sweater around the office without looking ridiculous. He has been married four times.

On a Monday morning in late January, Denihan is dressed in the uniform of bankers and branch office managers: dark suit, white shirt, red tie. Around the circular conference table in his office sits Dottie Clem, who heads the DCFS adoption unit, and six new social workers who have just started working for her.

A couple of times a month, Clem meets with Denihan so he can sign off on people with old felony charges who want to be adoptive parents. Some offenses automatically disqualify a person, but others don't. Denihan likes to know about all of them. "I want to be able to stand at Ninth and Euclid and be able to say, 'Yes, I reviewed this application, and this is why I did this,'" he says.

The first two cases are no-brainers. One man wanting to adopt a child had a drug conviction 10 years ago, but has since become a drug and alcohol abuse counselor. In another case, the would-be adoptive mother failed to show up in court 25 years ago to face shoplifting charges, which were eventually dropped anyway.

The third case is far more complicated. "We've been struggling with this one for a long time," Clem says, passing a thick envelope of documents to Denihan. A single, 40-year-old man is petitioning to adopt his 17-year-old foster son, who's been living in his house for the past four years. The man does not have a criminal record, nor has he ever been arrested.

There's only one reason the file is resting in Denihan's hands: In 1993, a suburban police department conducted a lengthy investigation of the man after a neighbor suspected him of pedophilia. The cops interviewed friends, neighbors, parents, and children the man had been in contact with through his involvement in youth sports and Cub Scouts. They found nothing to substantiate the charges. He took a lie detector test and passed.

Denihan goes around the room and asks the new workers what they think. Several express hesitation about letting the man adopt the boy.

Denihan is far less equivocating. "Here's where I'm at. I would support adoption. These allegations were found to be unfounded back in 1993. He passed a lie detector test. The child is 17 years old and thriving. He's an athlete. He's going to college. Do you know how rare it is that we have people wanting to adopt a 17-year-old? I think that says a lot. This man wants to make this child a part of his family. In a couple of months [when the child turns 18], he could be rid of him if he wanted to."

Later, Denihan explains that what troubled him most about the case wasn't the allegations. It was the fact that the case had taken so long to be resolved. "The worst sin in government is not making a decision."

This, of course, is not the vocabulary you'd expect from a lifelong bureaucrat. Indeed, despite having spent the majority of his career in government, Denihan tends to speak about his job more like a CEO than a civil servant -- an attitude reflected in some of the moves he's made. Incensed that people coming to the agency had to risk a ticket by parking on the street, Denihan booted more than a dozen senior employees out of their spots in the department's back lot to make room for visitor spaces. Troubled by the lack of a systematic way of dealing with disgruntled parents, he formed a customer service department, which requires supervisors to respond to any complaint registered with the department.

Not every decision, however, is as easy as opening up more parking spots. In late April, DCFS officials were notified that four-year-old Sydney Sawyer had died at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital after being struck so hard in the abdomen, her small intestine burst. She was no stranger to the department. One month earlier, the DCFS's intake division opened a file on her. The afternoon she died, Denihan met with everyone involved in her case. The supervisor who oversaw Sydney's social worker, Tallis George-Munro, was asked to write a memo outlining everything he knew. George-Munro wrote that he'd recognized a pattern bruise on Sydney's face in the Polaroids he'd seen before she died. It indicated she might have been hit with a closed fist.

Four days after the meeting, Tallis George-Munro was escorted out of the building.

When Denihan agreed to head the DCFS, there were exactly four people in the world who thought he could pull it off. He was one. The other three all happened to be Cuyahoga County commissioners.

He was not, however, their first choice. In January 1998, then-Director Judith Goodhand told commissioners she would be leaving the agency that June. Even with a six-month head start, the commissioners failed to come up with a new director by the time she left. The search dragged into late summer, then fall, then early winter.

One problem was the commissioners themselves. During the last year and a half of her tenure, Goodhand came under almost constant criticism from Commissioner Tim McCormack following the deaths of several children.

For Goodhand, the nadir arrived in the spring of 1997, when McCormack handed over child fatality reports to the press. The other commissioners at the time, Jane Campbell and Tim Hagan, expressed outrage over the move, going so far as to ask then-prosecutor Stephanie Tubbs-Jones if McCormack had violated the law by releasing the material. But the damage had been done. And the media, particularly television, were all too eager to follow McCormack's lead.

Much of the criticism had merit. Caseworkers had neglected cases. In a notorious example, one worker closed 27 case files without investigating reports of abuse or neglect.

The agency wasn't without fault, but in the media, almost any charge against the DCFS was treated as legitimate. (A notable exception was The Plain Dealer, which ran a lengthy series by Jean Dubail on the difficult decisions social workers are forced to make.) The low point came when WEWS-TV/Channel 5 aired a segment with a former DCFS employee obscured in darkness. Waving a child fatality report, the ex-staffer alleged that Goodhand had altered an official agency document.

It didn't matter that the writing wasn't hers. By the time Goodhand could figure out what happened and where the document had come from, it was too late. It was old news.

Goodhand was ill prepared for the scrutiny. She had come through the social worker ranks of much smaller agencies, professionally reared in the child welfare ethos -- a culture whose default public posture is defensive by nature. Citing confidentiality laws, she often said little or nothing at all when the agency came under attack, whether the salvo was credible or not.

Morale plummeted. The turnover rate, which had actually been better than the national average during much of her tenure, doubled in the year before she left.

"It was excruciating," says Goodhand. "Those are the things it's still really difficult to talk about. When I was interviewed for the job, I told all three commissioners one skill I did not have was political skill. I had not been in an environment where that was a major issue. And while I had certainly worked with the media and the community in a variety of ways, the scrutiny of the politicians was not something I was very good at."

Yet McCormack says much of the county's present success with children and family issues came out of exposing the problems at the DCFS. "I responded viscerally, and I hope intellectually, to say essentially that the county's standards and tools were so inadequate that we had to be held accountable," he says. "If I had it to do over again, I would do exactly the same thing."

But the leaders of child welfare agencies around the country took notice of Goodhand's struggle. When she left the DCFS, she was appointed to a blue-ribbon panel that oversaw the court-ordered overhaul of New York City's child welfare system. She is now a social work professor at the University of North Carolina and a consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation,

Goodhand is widely respected among her peers, and few of her colleagues were willing to step into a job in which one of the business's best and brightest was treated so poorly. "Child welfare is a small circle," she says from her office in Chapel Hill. "It's like every other profession. Just about everybody in the country knew what the situation was, so there weren't a lot of people lining up."

By December 1998, the commissioners still didn't have a director. It was almost a year after Goodhand had given her notice. "We just didn't find what we were looking for," says Campbell. "We felt the agency needed strong leadership. The relationship with the police wasn't very good. The relationship with the community wasn't very strong. Internally, morale was at a crashing low."

But they had finally figured out what kind of leader they wanted: somebody with experience with Cleveland. Somebody who was a good manager. Somebody like Bill Denihan.

At the time, Denihan was considering a move of his own -- leaving City Hall for the greener, richer pastures of government consulting. That's when Campbell called to ask him about taking over the DCFS. He didn't think she was serious at first, but he quickly warmed to the prospect. The challenge intrigued him. He talked to his wife, who wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea. "I thought it would consume him," she says.

She wasn't the only one. Today, there are a lot of people around town who say they were "cautiously optimistic" when Denihan was appointed, but much of that is selective memory. Few people, even those familiar with his career, thought he would be able to replicate at the DCFS the results he had enjoyed at other agencies. The job was just too big, the cases too many, the problems too complex. The department wasn't dealing just with bad parents and needy kids anymore. It was confronting drug addiction, poverty, homelessness, sexual abuse. It was as if every social ill was packed tightly into the little human packages the DCFS was supposed to care for. Denihan had never dealt with anything like it.

"I knew that he was a turnaround artist, and that every place he went he had been successful," says For the Children's Lardie, who has been critical of the agency over the years. "But I didn't see how he could be that successful in this."

Beech Brook Director Mario Tonti agrees: "He came into the job not knowing much of anything about child welfare - which, quite honestly, scared me."

Inside the agency, the apprehension was more intense. "When he first came in, there was a lot of anxiety due to the fact that he had no social service experience," says one supervisor who has been at the agency for eight years. "People were concerned, because the commissioners put him in there, and I think the commissioners at that time had no concept of what we do, and I think they thought, by bringing somebody that they appointed and they had experience with, that he was going to be their yes-man."

Denihan moved quickly to establish his credibility with front-line workers. He admitted he knew nothing about their work, but he quickly impressed people in and outside the agency with his commitment to learning the issues. He attended a series of public meetings about the agency; he reached out to the social workers whenever he had questions.

"He wouldn't have your boss ask you and then have her report back to him," says one supervisor. "He would call you right up to his office. To tell you the truth, the first time that happened, I was scared to death. I had never been called up to the director's office before."

And he gave credit where it had been long overdue. Because Goodhand had been beaten up so badly in the media, many assumed the agency was in shambles. Denihan was one of them. As he quickly realized -- and an American Humane Association report pointed out -- the agency had improved dramatically during her tenure, despite all the negative attention.

When she arrived in 1992, Goodhand inherited an agency in chaos. It didn't have computers; it kept records on yellow index cards. It still employed group homes for infants (an antiquated system that sends shivers up the spines of child welfare experts everywhere). The building was a mess. Kids were sleeping in the lobby overnight, because the DCFS didn't have enough foster homes.

The agency's professional practices weren't much better. Training was practically nonexistent, and inexperienced social workers had few tools to gauge the level of danger children were facing. Meanwhile, some workers had never been held accountable for job performance. Some used their workday to watch television. It had gotten so bad that the ACLU was contemplating a lawsuit.

"It didn't have a sense of its responsibility to the community," Lardie says of the agency before Goodhand arrived.

In response, Goodhand instituted widespread and far-reaching reforms. She made sure employees got trained and held them to specific standards of performance. "Among the things Judith did was to tell people they really had to work," says Lardie.

Still, there was plenty for Denihan to do when he arrived. Morale had bottomed out. Workers were leaving in droves. Caseloads were too high. There was a residual bunker mentality from all the negative media attention.

Denihan had no doubt about what the commissioners hired him to do. He shifted caseworkers to overloaded divisions. He streamlined the agency's management. He spoke out publicly in defense of the department. He stayed as late and worked as hard as anyone.

Indeed, Denihan is known around the agency for his long hours and hectic schedule. But his political standing also gave him leverage. Over the last 30 years, his reputation has been burnished to the point where he could quit his job over breakfast, say fans, and have a new one by lunch. It's not hard to find colleagues who jump to offer testimony on his effectiveness and integrity.

Andrew Cox, the DCFS's governmental affairs liaison, recalls seeing the benefits of Denihan's stature last year, when Cox went to Columbus to testify before a Senate committee hearing on legislation the director supported. Even before Cox could offer his testimony, the committee's powerful chairwoman, Senator Grace Drake, a Solon Republican, piped up. "I just want everyone to know that I talked to Bill Denihan last night," Cox recalls her saying. "I gotta tell you, if Bill is behind this, then I am."

"That really makes my job a lot easier," says Cox.

That standing also gives Denihan latitude with the commissioners. They need him as much as he needs them. This was never more apparent than at the end of 1999, when he managed to tackle the agency's chronic problem of high caseloads.

Like most child welfare agencies, the DCFS has long struggled with ever-increasing volume. When Goodhand arrived in 1992, some workers handling ongoing cases were responsible for 40 families or more. The Child Welfare League of America recommends a maximum of 17.

While caseloads at the DCFS had declined during Goodhand's tenure, the average was still around 30 families when Denihan took over. So in December '99, Denihan told his bosses exactly how many additional employees he would need to do the job they expected him to do. The number, it turned out, was 239. All of the new workers will be in place by April.

Yet the most important thing Denihan has done is also the least tangible. The agency is no longer an easy mark for the local media -- a move that has paid dividends in both public perception and internal morale. There are, of course, still stories: bad parents, indifferent families, cases in which the DCFS made mistakes. Marcus Moorer and Sydney Sawyer did not pass without notice. But the agency will not sit silent in the face of dubious criticism anymore. If a parent goes public with a case, confidentiality goes out the window, says Denihan. When fired upon, the agency will fire back.

"The media is not my friend; they're there to do a business," he says. "But you deal with them in an open fashion. You let them know when you're right and let them know when you're wrong. You answer the question."

There are, of course, still plenty of questions to answer. The department's critics are not difficult to find. Often, they're the parents of children who've been taken into custody by the agency, and their complaints are similar: unreturned phone calls, meeting notices that arrive after the meeting's already taken place, disrespectful social workers.

"It just blows my mind," says Margaret Giljahn, whose eight children were all taken into temporary custody after one of her daughters told a teacher she'd been hit by Giljahn's live-in boyfriend. "They said I didn't have beds for my kids. But the social worker didn't even look in my house. Nothing happened until I started screaming and hollering. That's when they sort of dropped everything."

But while the agency continues to receive a healthy dose of condemnation -- and always will -- Denihan's reputation remains unscathed. Around Cleveland, it is a remarkably difficult task to find anyone who doesn't speak about him with respect, even off the record. If there is a knock on Denihan, it's that he's almost too politically savvy, that his tell-it-like-it-is persona is calculated for effect.

Tallis George-Munro, for one, thinks his firing was not without political consideration. "It was a very politically shrewd decision on Director Denihan's part, because [the agency] knew that [Sydney Sawyer's] father would file a wrongful death suit. Their position all along has been to identify me as the person who should be sued, to back away from any responsibility."

But even George-Munro offers a caveat: "To be fair to him, he has a terribly difficult job."

The man with the toughest job in Ohio probably won't hold it much longer. Perhaps two, three years. If he runs for mayor, it will be a matter of months. He is, after all, 63 years old, and his history doesn't suggest tremendous fealty to an office, no matter what the job. If anything, his loyalty has always been more attached to the challenge than the power he could possess.

"I've always seen my job as being an agent of change," he says. "And that's what I've done."

Not that the DCFS will ever run out of challenges. Each year, the case volume grows. And each year, the cases get more complex. This year, the DCFS is on track for a 40 percent increase in adoption placements, to almost 900 children. Four years ago, the department was barely placing 200 kids a year.

And no matter how many social workers it hires, no matter how many foster parents it recruits, each new case and every child is just one mistake, one bad day, one indifferent parent away from becoming fodder for page 1A. And sometimes, there isn't a damn thing Denihan or anybody else can do about it.

"People forget that the parents are the ones responsible for caring for kids," says Dr. Gary Crow, director of Lorain County Children's Services. "Parents are the ones that have failed their children, not the system. And when the government and the community try to intervene into responsibilities that are basically those of parents and families, it's not going to be a perfect fit. It's not possible for any community to keep 100 percent of its children safe 100 percent of the time."

But there are, every once in a while, morsels of success. And in the spacious corner office, on the third floor of a building no parent ever wants to visit, the man with the toughest job in Ohio looks up from the paperwork spread before him and pauses to assess his best day of the last two years. "I've got pictures of it," he says, pointing to a sheaf of papers pinned to a wall.

They're from last summer, when the department was embroiled in the custody fight over a chubby two-year-old known as Baby Bob. In 1998, Bob was born to a 12-year-old who'd been raped by her cousin and placed in the county's custody. Soon after Bob's birth, the DCFS placed him with Jeffrey and Claudine Verlinden, who lived in Parma. When the Verlindens moved to adopt Bob a year later, Juvenile Judge Joseph Nahra blocked the move and ordered the child to live with Laura Meadows, the foster mother of Baby Bob's biological mother.

County attorneys challenged the decision, and in July, the appellate court overturned Nahra's ruling. The child was eventually returned to the Verlindens, who now live in Indiana and have started adoption proceedings.

Denihan was outraged by the decision to take the child away from the Verlindens. He couldn't understand why anyone would take a child out of a loving home. So he fought: "That is what we're supposed to be doing."

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