Statewide crisis of CHINS stretches judicial resources

Just when Cindy Booth and her colleagues at Child Advocates Inc. think the number of CHINS cases has peaked, the totals rise again.

The increase in filings of juvenile children in need of services petitions across the state has been growing steadily since 2011 but ballooned to 14,227 in 2014 and could likely top 17,500 for 2015.

In conjunction with the increased filings, more parents need public defenders, and the number of children needing a place to live as well as a guardian ad litem or a court appointed special advocate has risen.

Booth, executive director of Child Advocates, which serves only Marion County, described the driving force behind the rise as “a lot of everything.” But the result, she has seen, is that society is now losing a generation of young mothers and fathers who are completely disconnected from their children.

At Booth’s agency, the staff has more than 500 CASA volunteers and a “perfectly good” strategy for recruiting another 300 to 400 volunteers this year. Yet, if the organization tried to pair every CHINS child with an adult CASA, it would need about 1,500 volunteers.

CHINS children served by the Indiana Department of Child Services rose from 12,871 in March 2012 to 20,569 in March 2016. And the number of CHINS cases in which a public defender was appointed reached 10,879 in 2014, with a total of 3,348 having no defender appointed.

Looking at the first quarter CHINS filings, Jan Berg, chief of the Marion County Public Defender Agency’s CHINS/Termination of Parental Rights Division, believes 2016 could be a record-breaking year.

“I just don’t see an end in sight,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to stop this.”

Many causes

While the epidemics of heroin, methamphetamine and opioid prescription painkillers are usually fingered as the cause for the skyrocketing CHINS numbers, many note other factors are contributing.

The sluggish economy and lack of jobs, domestic violence, criminal violations and mental health problems can overwhelm parents and force their children into foster care. James Wide, deputy director of communications at the Indiana Department of Child Services, explained some parents, struggling under many adversities, fall to the end of their rope and the situation in their home turns volatile.

Drugs are not the sole cause, Wide said, but they are big part of the problem and often present.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, juvenile CHINS cases filled the docket of Marion Superior Judge Marilyn Moores. The parade of DCS caseworkers, attorneys, parents and sometimes children that rotated in and out of the small courtroom showed the struggles and dysfunction families in Indiana can suffer. But many were commonly linked by substance abuse.

Eleven years on the juvenile bench, Moores said the CHINS parents coming into her courtroom now are more hopeless and “know they have sold their soul to the devil” by getting hooked on heroin.

“It’s the saddest, scariest thing in the world,” she said.

One couple working to overcome their heroin addiction had petitioned the court for an informal adjustment so their teenager could return home. Moores was reluctant, noting opiate addicts usually relapse and, in her experience, informal adjustments seem to give addicted parents enough leeway to get in trouble again.

Still, she granted the petition with the condition the order be reviewed in 30 days and the parents submit to court’s drug screens.

Addressing the mother and father, Moores said, “I pray that I am wrong about informal adjustments” and she encouraged them to continue their recovery.

At the Marion County Public Defender Agency, chief public defender Robert Hill believes part of the problem lies with the increased hiring at DCS. The additional case managers brought into the department have boosted the number of CHINS petitions filed.

Berg was uncertain of what is driving the CHINS numbers higher but she also pointed to DCS. The department, she said, is hiring new workers fresh from college to whom every situation looks like a CHINS case.

She estimated that a quarter to one-half of all CHINS cases are dismissed before trial, given an informal adjustment or outright won by the parents. In fact, she said, if some families were referred to community services and given a follow-up a few months later, the outcome would be better and would keep the children and parents from being thrown into the court system.

However, Wide said as the number of CHINS petitions has increased, the Department of Child Services has been reaching out to service providers more and working to connect parents to the resources they need so as to prevent having to remove the children from the home.

When the department gets an allegation of abuse or neglect, an assessment team will be sent to the home, Wide said. The team may not find something to warrant intervention, but if it spots a safety concern or some other problem, the team will tap other agencies to help bring a remedy.

chins-chart.gifRefusing clients

In the 2015 budget, the Legislature increased the annual appropriation to DCS from $258.6 million to $265.3 million.

Hill does not quibble with giving more money to DCS, but his concern is the funding levels of the other agencies, such as public defenders, remained unchanged. These agencies are having to devote more resources to handle all the CHINS cases without additional money.

His agency has hired more attorneys to work in the CHINS/TPR Division, bringing the current total to 19. Even so, many lawyers are working six to 14 hours of overtime each pay period and bumping against the Public Defender Commission’s caseload cap of 150 CHINS cases per year.

With additional families coming for representation and no money following from the state, Hill frets his agency may reach a point where it will have to refuse to take any more cases.

Moores also sees the Marion County juvenile court division suffering if the number of CHINS cases remains high and no new resources are allocated. Marion County, which, according to Moores, currently has 40 percent of all the CHINS cases in the state, raced from 990 CHINS filings in the year ending in May 2014 to 1,501 in the year ending in May 2015.

“A child is going to fall through the cracks,” she said. “I’m going to lose good judicial officers who are going to find it easier to do another job than this.”

‘Societal issue’

The Indiana Commission on Improving the Status of Children is paying attention to the rise in CHINS cases. According to its 2015 annual report, the group had plans to examine the statewide increase in CHINS along with reviewing CHINS that are showing up as delinquency cases and considering whether status offenders such as runaways, truants and curfew violators should be moved to the CHINS code.

Commission member Rep. David Frizzell did not elaborate on what conclusions the commission is drawing, but he noted multiple things could be done to address the rising number of cases, including increased funding. While the Indianapolis Republican said he would support additional money going to help with the CHINS cases, he noted getting the Statehouse to approve an appropriation that is above previous funding levels could be difficult.

To Scott Circuit Judge Roger Duvall, the increase in CHINS cases is a “societal issue.” Social service agencies and the justice system have roles but the problem touches on many aspects of the communities and should be addressed through a variety of means.

From establishing a reliable public transportation system so workers can get to jobs outside their neighborhoods to boosting the number of addiction treatment services, the solution must be multifaceted, he said.

The need for addiction treatment was echoed by many, especially low-cost, long-term inpatient services. Indeed, in Scott County, Duvall laid the blame for the increase in CHINS cases to the rise of heroin use fueled by prescription pain medication.

He is hoping an end to the flood of CHINS cases comes soon.

“I have to believe that you reach some type of saturation point,” he said. “It’s such a large percentage compared to our population that there does come a point in time where the number has to drop off.”•

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