With a new governor taking over Indiana’s executive branch in January, what changes, if any, will come to the Department of Child Services are unknown. However, some contend that should not stop the agency from addressing criticism and implementing new policies or programs now.
DCS, established in 2005, has faced a continuing barrage of outrage stemming from allegations that several children have died despite having been reported to the agency as being abused or neglected. It has also drawn ire for its centralized hotline and how it has handled children who have mental health issues.
Currently, the Indiana General Assembly has two groups – the Indiana Commission on Mental Health and Addiction and the Department of Child Services Interim Study Committee – examining the agency, its policies and processes.
Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, and Rep. Cindy Noe, R-Indianapolis, co-chairs of the interim study committee, have already outlined legislation regarding the hotline they intend to introduce during the next legislative session. Moreover, both have met with DCS Interim Director John Ryan and have encouraged him to move forward with addressing the concerns he can administratively.
In the three months remaining before a new governor takes the oath of office, Noe has recommended to Ryan that he first identify three to five of the most pressing issues and concentrate on finding resolutions or the pathway to a remedy. Then he should work toward putting these solutions into operation with the goal of having them in place by the end of the 2012.
Any new director will have to quickly gauge where the agency is headed then shepherd it in that direction rather than charting a new course, Holdman said. Upending the entire structure and changing direction would, in his words, be fatal.
Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council and member of the study committee, also advocated the agency be proactive in addressing concerns. He advised hiring an independent management consultant to do an objective, nonpartisan assessment of the organization, including its mission, priorities, strategic direction and operations, and then provide recommendations. These would be passed along to the next governor, giving the new administration a starting point.
He does not see the problems currently plaguing the agency as being beyond solutions.
“I think there are obviously a number of issues about DCS, but my guess is that is because of the difficult subject of what they are dealing with,” Landis said. “You’re never going to get it right all the time. … I don’t think the problems are insurmountable. I think they have to do an organizational reassessment.”
Tweaking the hotline
Neither Holdman nor Noe wants to dismantle the centralized hotline and return to the previous system, but they are calling for more involvement at the local level. A key provision in their proposed legislation would provide a separate line for community professionals such as police officers, judges, prosecutors, physicians, school personnel and mental health providers to use that would give them direct contact with the local child protective services branch.
The centralized hotline, Noe said, brings consistency and removes the unevenness in the screening process that had arisen when calls were handled at the local level. In addition, the current single hotline collects data that can be used to spot trends and help determine where best to focus the state’s resources.
“We have increased the efficiency,” she said. “We have done it in a way some people say is ineffective. I think what we need to do is adjust to where we find the sweet spot between trying to be efficient and effective.”
Adding a local element to the hotline would reduce the workload at DCS by separating out the calls from community professionals who traditionally have a better quality of information, Holdman said. Calls that come from people in the communities who work directly with children are substantiated at a rate that exceeds 80 percent. This compares to the tips from anonymous callers that are substantiated at a 17 percent rate.
The legislative proposal by Holdman and Noe also calls for more staff at the local and state levels to handle the incoming calls. Adding more personnel would lower the amount of work each individual has and may help reduce a turnover rate that Holdman estimated equates to three to four people walking out the door every month.
In a presentation before the study committee, the DCS proposed hiring an additional 92 workers with at least one intake specialist located in every local office along with hiring another 100 new family case managers.
The decision to introduce legislation that addresses issues with the hotline was “simply a judgment call,” Noe said. Handling the changes to the hotline administratively through rules raises the potential for tweaks and modifications to be made without the Legislature being aware.
However, Landis is skeptical of imposing a legislative solution, as doing so can limit any changes the DCS may need to make to improve the system.
“It’s premature for the Legislature to say we know what the problems are and we’re going to fix them through legislation,” Landis said.
The outcry over DCS providing mental health services to children reached a peak in May when Morgan Circuit Court Judge Matthew Hanson wrote a scathing opinion, characterizing the agency as “refusing to handle mental health/disease cases as they should be” and charging that the system DCS uses for reviewing and filing CHINS 6 cases is broken.
Prosecutors contend that since the Legislature took away their ability to file Child In Need of Services petitions to get minors treatment for mental health and behavioral issues, these children are landing in court where the only option is to treat them as juvenile delinquents. In addition, some parents, desperate to get their child help, are having to declare themselves to be abusive or neglectful.
DCS is launching a pilot program in Lawrenceburg to address these concerns. In a presentation to the Indiana Commission on Mental Health and Addiction, the agency outlined its plan to rely on community mental health centers to assess the child and coordinate care. For children who need services but are not covered by private insurance or are not Medicaid eligible, DCS will step in and provide the funding.
Noe, who is also the chair of the commission, applauded the plan, saying it charts a new path because the child and parents will not have to become involved with DCS to receive services. School teachers, judges and other professionals in the community, along with the parents, will be able to recommend services for the minor.
While calling it innovative, Andrew Cullen, legislative liaison at the Indiana Public Defender Council, said the DCS proposal does not go far enough. The program will never be able to compel uncooperative children to participate in their mental health treatment, he said. Only the courts can do that and, therefore, prosecutors should be again given the ability to file CHINS 6 petitions.
Noe acknowledged she has not made up her mind regarding what to do about CHINS 6 petitions. She said she wants to get all the discussion on the table then find the places of obvious agreement before making a decision.
The Indiana Commission on Mental Health and Addiction’s last scheduled meeting is Oct. 15. The DCS Interim Study Committee is scheduled to have its final meeting Oct. 25.•