Leslie Dunn, Indiana state director for GAL/CASA, said the number of Child in Need of Services cases over time remains stable, but she’s seen some remarkable variations in cases per-county from year to year. In Vanderburgh County, for example, new CHINS cases jumped from 448 in 2008 to 818 in 2010. People who are watching these numbers with concern cite several possible reasons for these variations.
Scott Wylie, plan administrator for the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Southwestern Indiana, said that he noticed during that same time period, the number of methamphetamine labs found in Vanderburgh County increased significantly. Indiana State Police show that in 2008, law enforcement seized 47 clandestine meth labs in the county. Last year, that number climbed to 95. While one might draw the conclusion that an increase in meth labs is directly tied to an increase in reported CHINS cases, data alone cannot reveal the complex reasons numbers are increasing in some counties, while dropping in others.
Wylie recalled that in 2008, 3-year-old Kalab Lay died after being returned to his parents’ Evansville home.
“There was a large amount of criticism in the Southwestern part of the state that the system had failed the young person by returning him to drug-addicted parents who ended up killing him and significantly injuring his sister,” he said.
Wylie said that perhaps the increasing number of CHINS cases in the Evansville area was a reaction to that incident, with nervous caseworkers reacting more strongly to allegations of abuse. In Marion County, that’s exactly what happened following the death of 3-year-old TaJanay Bailey in 2007.
In November 2007, 3-year-old TaJanay Bailey died. She was just a few months old when the Indiana Department of Child Services first removed her from her mother’s care, and during her short life, she shifted back and forth between foster care and her mother’s home, where she sustained the injuries that caused her death.
Public outcry over TaJanay’s death made DCS caseworkers skittish about leaving neglected children in their homes.
“They began to remove kids right and left because they didn’t want to be on the front page of the paper,” said Dave Judkins, deputy director of field operations for the DCS. “We watched as that kind of played out in the press, the impact it had on our workers when they went out and dealt with these families.”
But, Judkins said, removing children from their homes can be terribly traumatic.
“The easiest thing to do to stay out of the paper would be to just remove kids, but you can’t do that; it’s just not right,” he said.
In the past few years, Judkins said, the DCS has begun to shift its approach to keeping children in homes whenever possible. About 80 percent of CHINS cases result from neglect, he said, with physical or sexual abuse accounting for a minority of the cases.
“I would tell you that I don’t think kids being raised in the system is a good thing,” Judkins said. “Kids should be raised in families, and preferably in their own families.”
In 2005, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels created DCS as a cabinet-level organization, reporting directly to his office. Before then, the Division of Family and Children – under the umbrella of the Family and Social Services Administration – oversaw child welfare issues. Along with the restructuring in 2005 came a renewed focus on creating uniformity in how child abuse and neglect is reported and processed. As part of that goal, in 2010 the DCS launched the new toll-free Indiana Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline.
Prior to the creation of the hotline, Judkins said, Indiana had 392 phone numbers for reporting child abuse. And after 4:30 p.m., when DCS workers went home for the day, incoming calls would roll over to local law enforcement. Little uniformity existed in how calls were handled.
“It was really that way every day at 4:30. And then on weekends, we frankly didn’t answer the phones either,” he said. “Two-thirds of the time, they weren’t going to get DCS; they would get probably a law enforcement agency or a contractual agency.”
Judkins said he’s uncertain about the accuracy of reported abuse and neglect calls prior to 2010. He also said that screen-outs – calls that are determined to not be about abuse or neglect – should have been noted in the system, but knowing that those calls would be purged in 30 days anyway, overworked operators may have neglected to log them.
Now, all hotline calls are answered in Marion County, 24 hours a day, every day of the week. And operators there apply the same criteria in evaluating reports across all counties. Dunn said that the slow drive toward uniformity could be causing the fluctuation in CHINS numbers from county to county.
“DCS has implemented a lot of new procedures and policies, and I think that those policies and the hotline have had different effects in different counties, depending on what their prior practice was,” she said. “So if you had a county that screened-out a lot to begin with, or tried to work with families before they filed a CHINS to begin with, and now, with the new hotline being centralized and new people answering it …. they may be more inclined to file a case because of the policies.” As a result, some counties’ numbers are going up.
When DCS rolled-out the new hotline, it also launched an advertising campaign to ensure people knew how to report abuse and neglect.
Although the change in the way DCS handles reports of abuse and neglect may account for some of the unpredictable changes in new CHINS numbers, child welfare advocates say that substance abuse increases the odds that children will be neglected at home – particularly if the parents are abusing methamphetamine.
“I don’t think there’s any question that there’s neglect at a greater rate when parents are on a drug like that and are not able to give their attention to their kids,” Dunn said.
First Sgt. Niki Crawford, commander of the Indiana State Police Meth Suppression Section, said police are finding more meth labs in Indiana than ever before – and not just because they’ve become more adept at detecting them. Through June 30, 2011, police seized 741 clandestine meth labs, compared to 672 in the same timeframe last year. And in the first six months of this year, police identified 181 children living in meth homes. In all of 2010, 282 children were living in meth lab homes.
“Probably the number one issue is neglect,” Crawford said. “These children are simply neglected. They’re having to get themselves up and get ready for school, they have to make their own meals.”
A more grim side effect of meth use, Crawford said, is that it causes sexual arousal combined with poor judgment and erratic behavior, which often leads to sexual abuse in homes where meth is being used and manufactured.
Judkins said children would not necessarily be removed from homes where parents have abused drugs, but if the children are in danger or if the parents are taken to jail, DCS will remove the child.
Judkins, who lives in northeastern Indiana, said, “I think up there, every time you read the paper, it’s people getting arrested for meth use, meth labs, precursors – it’s cheap, it’s easy. I don’t know that we can do a lot about the meth issues; we’re in a reactive mode, and we get called after there’s a problem.”
The National Association of Children of Alcoholics reports that 79.6 percent of welfare professionals say drug and alcohol abuse contributes to at least half of all cases of child maltreatment.•
In the next issue of Indiana Lawyer, read about how DCS efforts are reuniting broken families and exceeding national benchmarks for child permanency.