Testimony

This screen capture of an Ohio House of Representatives committee meeting shows Shirley Wagner, center, giving testimony in favor of a bill that would allow non-parent caretakers of minor children to receive child support. She is pictured with her husband, Adam, right, and State Rep. Jim Hoops, R-Napoleon.

Growing up in Bryan, Shirley Wagner’s life was “a living hell.”

She was abused — emotionally, physically and sexually — by her parents while attending school, working a job and selling drugs on the side to support her family.

When it all came to a head, she ran away from home and lived with her sister, who had power of attorney but not legal custody over her. Without legal custody, her sister was unable to get child support from their parents for Wagner. This meant her placement in that home, though best for her physically and mentally, put an additional financial strain on her sister, who was already struggling with two children of her own.

Ohio House Bill 83, currently in committee, could have changed that situation and allowed Wagner to take opportunities and make memories in high school she was unable to as she was “too busy being an adult.”

It may be too late for Wagner, but she wants to do what she can to prevent it from happening to anyone else.

House Bill 83

House Bill 83 was introduced to the Ohio House of Representatives on Feb. 9, sponsored by C. Allison Russo, D-District 24, and Susan Manchester, R-District 84. The next day it was sent to the Families, Aging and Human Services committee.

Among other things, the bill allows child support orders to be redirected or new orders issued for non-parent primary caretakers of a child.

For example, Wagner said, if a grandma takes on her grandchild, she can only get the power of attorney for that child. That’s enough for placement through Ohio Job and Family Services, but falls short of legal custody.

That means if Grandma is on a fixed income and can barely afford her bills even without an extra mouth to feed, she won’t get child support, even if the child’s father is paying it.

“The money is essentially getting wasted and not going to the direct support of the child,” Wagner said. “One of the many reasons why kinship placements don’t work is because of finances.”

This legislation would change that.

She’s not alone in thinking it’s a good cause, with Rep. Jim Hoops, R-Napoleon, co-sponsoring the bill.

“I think it’s an important piece of legislation,” Hoops said. “It allows child support amounts to be redirected to people actually taking care of the child.”

When asked about the odds of it becoming law, Hoops was optimistic.

Manchester is not only the primary sponsor of the bill, but also chair the committee, he said. Russo, the other primary sponsor, is also a member of the committee.

“They’re very passionate about this issue,” Hoops said. “They’re the type of people that they’re going to look at every option and every way of getting this thing through.”

Wagner and her husband, Adam, spoke at a committee meeting last week in favor of the bill.

“We believe that House Bill 83 is one of the ways that the State of Ohio can assist families who would like to help their relatives through difficult times, while also holding biological parents financially responsible for their children,” the Wagners told the committee, according to testimony found online. “Our fellow citizens all agree — child support should follow the child and that parents that do not have residential custody of children should pay support for them.”

Wagner told The Times in an interview on Friday that the testimony went well.

“I think they are going to have one more hearing and I believe this will go the house floor,” she said. “I have faith that it will end up passing and going to the Senate floor and so on and so forth and become law in Ohio. I think we’re well on our way.”

Even though it’s being done “one small bite at a time,” Wagner said it was encouraging to see work being done on the issue.

Wagner’s Story

Wagner, who currently lives in West Unity with her husband, Adam, and their four children (three biological and one adopted), said this legislation is long overdue.

It could have helped her when she a teenager in Bryan.

“My mother was abusive, my father was a pedophile,” Wagner said. “So, basically, my life was a living hell. My life is a miracle; It’s crazy that I’m even here today.”

When she was 16 she came home from church camp — sponsored by her mentors Scott and Anne Bard — to find her father had moved into the house.

He had spent the previoius 10 years in prison for molesting her. Wagner’s mother was planning on remarrying him, forcing Wagner to live with him.

This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, sending her into a “total breakdown.”

“At this time, I was working at KFC and selling drugs because my mother was encouraging me to sell her pain medications to pay rent,” Wagner said. “At this point, seeing the ultimate betrayal of my father coming back and realizing the further abuse I was going to endure, I decided to say something to my therapist.”

Her therapist told her to get to a police station and file a report.

So, Wagner did what she had to do: She snuck out in the middle of the night and caught a ride with her brother to the police station.

On a conference call with a social worker and her mother, the social worker said Wagner’s mother could be investigated, likely resulting in multiple charges of abuse and neglect, or she could sign over power of attorney to Wagner’s sister.

So, she went to live with her older sister.

“My older sister was on a limited budget, as well. She was struggling to survive and she had two kids of her own,” Wagner said. “I worked multiple jobs, trying to help pay for the bills.”

She couldn’t afford driving classes, so she couldn’t get a permit until she was 18. A year later she was able to get a car.

Wagner also had to pass up on various opportunities afforded to her at school.

“I was offered to be on debate teams in high school, all kinds of things I could have been offered but I had to pass up because I was too busy being an adult when I was a child,” she said.

Without legal guardianship — which Wagner’s sister couldn’t afford — getting child support was impossible.

So, it “was a no brainer” for her to support HB 83, which could have helped her if it was law 16 years ago.

After everything she went through, Wagner decided she wanted to pay it forward through adopting at least one child, which she did. It started when she was around 20 years old with a happenstance meeting with a 2-year-old girl at the Williams County Health Department.

This girl was like a sister to her own children and was even the flower girl at her wedding to Adam Wagner. They fell out of touch when Wagner went to mortuary school in Cincinnati. While the Wagners wanted to take the girl with them, the mother refused to grant them any sort of custody as she was benefiting from welfare while taking care of her.

The Wagners moved back to Williams County and eventually were able to adopt the girl through a private adoption, which ended up costing them around $9,000.

“I did whatever I could to adopt her,” Wagner said. “My husband worked hard, took on extra jobs on the side.”

That’s when she reached out to then-Gov. John Kasich to say something needs to be done about the situation.

Since then, Wagner said, she has been trying to help children in similar situations, with her and her husband dedicating their lives to advocating for kids and changes in the system for foster and adoptive parents.

“It’s a God thing; I’m very religious,” she said. “This is only happening by the will of God ... It’s a heck of a story, but it’s definitely worth telling because I hope to make people more aware that (my adoptive daughter’s) scenario, my scenario is prevalent, it’s the norm. The norm is not children being saved. The norm is a public safety and health issue of children being recycled into different departments because the system failed them.”

While it’s an uphill battle, state and local leaders know this and are working to help in the ways they can.

That includes HB 83 and local efforts including the Protecting All Children Taskforce (PACT) and Mentors for Williams County.

The latter was formed after Wagner spoke to the county’s Republican Central Committee.

“I was invited there by Commissioner Terry Rummel and I spoke about these issues and they said ‘What can we do?’ and I said ‘You can start a mentor program,’” she said. “That’s when A.J. (Nowaczyk) and them started that mentor program. Amazing. I’m very happy that happened.”

Her hope is that by informing local citizens, they will become impassioned and speak out to help protect children in the county, state and nation.

“That’s pretty much what I’m about,” she said.

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