ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: State must address persistent Indiana Department of Child Services problems

Though the state over the past two years has poured resources into improving the Indiana Department of Child Services, there’s still more work to be done to ensure the department is providing the best possible services for some of Indiana’s most vulnerable children.

The agency’s problems came to a head in December 2017 when Director Mary Beth Bonaventura wrote a scathing resignation letter. Bonaventura claimed she had been stripped of the authority to run the department for nearly a year, and she asserted that the department’s chief of staff had bullied subordinates, creating a hostile work environment.

If something didn’t change, she warned, it would “all but ensure children will die.”

Since then, the state’s commitment to DCS has accelerated. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s administration hired the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group for a six-month study of the department’s processes and effectiveness. The study found multiple problems, including the following:

• A very high rate of children in out-of-home care, and an extremely high rate of court involvement in child welfare cases.

• Uneven workloads, some far exceeding established caseload standards. Nearly 45% of family caseworkers had more than the standard number of c

• Inconsistent implementation of policies from county to county.

Under the leadership of new director Terry Stigdon, DCS has made improvements. The turnover rate of family case managers has fallen by 18%, according to Holcomb.

But some difficulties persist.

A class-action federal lawsuit claims the state failed to protect 22,000 children in the welfare system and that it has not done enough to reform the department. The nine children listed as plaintiffs suffered serious psychological and physical harm while in the state’s care, according to the lawsuit.

The suit was filed just months after the state Legislature added more than $500 million to the DCS budget for 2020-2021. That’s an increase of 38%.

In his State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 14, Holcomb announced the creation of an adoption unit within the DCS to assist family case managers “with finding permanent homes for children when parental rights have been terminated.” The governor said the adoption unit would “enable family case managers to focus on their primary mission of protecting children in need.”

In the current session, legislators will consider Senate Bill 259 ( Introduced by Victoria Spartz, R-Noblesville, it would require the DCS by November to produce a report detailing the department’s expenditures “categorized by case type.”

This additional layer of accountability, along with continual attention from the Holcomb administration, could help ensure that the Department of Child Services is indeed working hard, smart and with transparency to promote the health and safety of Hoosier children.