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It's About Innovation: Jim Carter

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Jim Carter finds a way. Innovation can take a lot of different forms, although the definition of the word embodies what Jim Carter has done with the scope of programming at Child Focus: He and his team are constantly seeking new ideas, methods and interventions.

Many agencies have a single purpose or focus. This is not the case for Child Focus. In the beginning, the agency was known as the Clermont County Diagnostic Center, which provided highly specialized services. Jim worked there with six other employees. Today Child Focus has a much broader scope and nearly 300 employees.

In 1982, Child Focus became the Head Start preschool provider for Clermont County and expanded its children’s mental health services. The agency hasn’t looked back since; expanding to serve children and their families through dozens of programs, ranging from foster care to in-school counseling to crisis support.

“When a client reaches a level of development, we don’t refer that person on to another agency; we maintain the client’s services with the full range of services we provide. We believe in a continuity of care,” said Carter.

Born in a time of war and food rations, Jim Carter is the second of five boys and his mom wanted them all to be preachers. His dad worked for the post office as a letter carrier and then "got the call" and went to Cincinnati Bible Seminary to become a minister. He befriended an attorney in Mariemont, who told him there was a parsonage available and thus started Carter’s life in Mariemont.

Jim played basketball, sang in the Mariemont High School choir and variety shows, and says he was not a good student.

“What was unique about Mariemont, and I’ve been in hundreds of schools all over the country and world, is that there was an expectation that you were going to college. It wasn’t pushed on you, it was just understood. In the same way, you just understood the teachers really cared about all of us. And everything was very positive. For example, if you lost a game, the coaches didn’t dwell on it; instead, they talked about winning the next game. Everything was about the future and about fixing it; so maybe that thinking has helped direct me to where I am in my life.”

Jim still lives in Greater Cincinnati with his wife, Winnie. Their four kids and nine grandchildren visit them frequently. Family is very important to him.

And that was one of the things Jim says he liked about the Mariemont community – it was very family oriented. “If you did something wrong, your parents got called or the police were at your door. There are a lot of areas in the country that are not supportive of children. I was lucky to grow up in a place where the whole community pitched in and invested in the children.”

Later, he became a youth minister in California, but didn’t always feel comfortable in that role. He came back to Cincinnati and knew he didn’t want to be in the active ministry. “I had always worked with the urban community, with kids in poverty, so I went down to the University of Cincinnati and told them I wanted to be a teacher,” said Carter. “They suggested special education because they needed men in that field. I took a class in the Emotionally Disturbed Child and it really challenged my competitiveness. With emotionally disturbed children, you can change their lives so dramatically if you can just find a way to treat each child individually.”

He went on to run the school and the in-patient education program at Children’s Psychiatric Center, when a job in Clermont County caught his eye. Things were shaky at first and then the agency won the grant for Head Start and today it has 31 lines of funding coming in. “We want to meet unmet needs and create programs in such a way that they are sustainable,” said Carter.

He said it is critical to expand and stay on top of changing mental health issues and trends. “According to a recent study done at Yale, three times more kids are kicked out of preschool than in K-12 combined. The acknowledgement of mental health issues at an early age is critical to the success of the child. Added to that, our society and norms are constantly changing – 50% of kids are in single head of household homes, there are high divorce rates, untreated mental health needs, historically low expectations for kids, dietary changes and deficiencies. When I started, one out of 10,000 kids were autistic and now it’s one out of eight. We are in a constantly changing world and children’s needs reflect that.”

What is most innovative about Child Focus is its approach to school-based services. The agency doesn’t just do therapy; it goes in and makes sure mental health services are available for every student through intervention, prevention and consultation services. In a collaborative approach, the organization has a commitment to serving other entities that serve kids, such as schools, juvenile court and the Department of Job and Family Services.

What is also innovative about Child Focus is its response to disaster and crisis. The agency provides counseling staff for students and staff after a crisis; it also has worked with FEMA in disaster relief; and it provides the crisis hotline and is the mobile crisis unit for Clermont County.

“My one single skill is that I hire good people who are smarter than me and I get out of their way. A lot of our programs are developed when someone identifies a problem or a population we’re not serving and shows a need. We look at a need and then we find a way to serve them. What we’re trying to focus on is addressing issues to help people adjust, deal with their problems and move on – strengthening them so they can focus and take the next step on their life’s journey.”