Waiting on DCS report, legislature is not idle

Since becoming foster parents, Stephanie and Daniel Bass of Fort Wayne have learned caring for the children who come into their home requires an uncommon level of devotion, dedication, patience and commitment.

The children are often abused and neglected, plucked from their homes by the Indiana Department of Child Services. In addition to tending to the physical and emotional wellbeing of youngsters who have endured so much, the Basses also must make sure the little ones visit their biological parents, get to doctors’ appointments, and receive any needed therapy.

Recently, the Basses took a break. Stephanie and Daniel tucked their adopted son and their foster daughter, whom they have cared for since she was born, into the car and made the trip to the Indiana Statehouse for Foster Parent Appreciation Day.

In the swirl of parents and children waiting for the ceremony to begin, Stephanie Bass was hoping to tell her state senator what she wanted for foster parents.

“We need a voice,” Bass said. “We need to be heard when we talk to judges and case managers and attorneys. We really know what’s best for these kids because they’ve been in our homes for months, for years. We need a voice.”

Some Republican lawmakers say they’ve heard from their constituents about traumatized children and DCS.

They started crafting legislation before former DCS executive director Mary Beth Bonventura’s shocking departure from the agency in December. While the majority leadership has resisted calls for an investigation, legislators filed several bills intended to improve the child welfare system.

At least 14 DCS-related bills were introduced in the 2018 Indiana General Assembly. Nine have passed their respective chambers without opposition and await further consideration. Though Democrats have joined as authors, co-authors or sponsors, Republicans mostly have been the primary authors.

Zay Zay

Sen. Andy Zay, R-Huntington, is an author or co-author of six measures regarding CHINS cases.

Speculating some of the problems within DCS may be better resolved by policy changes within the agency than legislation, Zay maintained the state must address the opioid crisis and ballooning number of foster children.

He sees two issues arising from CHINS — the care of the children, and the state’s ability to cover the costs. Indiana, he said, may be unable to fund infrastructure projects or other initiatives because it will be diverting so much money to helping children in need.

Across the aisle, Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville, wants the Legislature to have a role in examining the troubles at DCS and potential solutions. He has offered Senate Resolution 14, which urges the Legislative Council to establish a two-year interim study committee.

Melton Melton

“We have to call forth … enlightened individuals to the table to interview them, get their perspective so we can figure out what type of policies we need to make to address the issues that we’re hearing about, that we’re learning about to ensure that the children are safe,” Melton said.

A 22-pound 6-year old

The total number of CHINS cases has increased from 26,018 in 2010 to an estimated 40,743 in 2017, according to state court data. Moreover, the Associated Press reported that the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group — outside consultants hired by Gov. Eric Holcomb to review the DCS — found Indiana is removing and placing in foster care twice as many children as the national average.

Data aside, constituent stories spurred Zay to offer Senate Bill 428. The measure, which passed the Senate 48-0, requires DCS to try to coordinate with school officials when developing a case plan for CHINS students and to provide information to the court if a child’s caregiver fails a drug test or violates a dispositional order in some other way.

The first part of the bill was developed in reaction to a 6-year-old special needs child who showed up on the first day of class weighing just 22 pounds. As Huntington County Community School Corporation Superintendent Randy Harris and special services director Megan Horsely told the members of the Senate Committee on Family and Children Services, they reached out to DCS, calling the agency and filing reports regularly, trying to get basic medical information.

School officials said DCS rebuffed their efforts and gave the impression the child was incapable of learning. Although DCS said the child was fine, school personnel called an ambulance. The student ended up in intensive care for 10 days.

“We were not given the information we needed to provide for her education and her health while she was entrusted to us,” Harris told the committee.

No one from DCS testified at the hearing.

Messmer Messmer

Some committee members were concerned about confidentiality and the possible strain the bill’s requirements would place on school resources. The language was softened from obligating school officials to participate in the preparation of a predispositional report on a CHINS case to mandating the DCS representatives try to work withthe school.

Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, authored legislation to cover a gap in state law illuminated by a court appointed special advocate in his district. Senate Bill 381 requires DCS to label all children in the home as CHINS if any child is abused by an adult living in the household.

He was already working on the bill, collaborating with DCS and juvenile judges, when Bonaventura’s resignation exposed turmoil in the agency. Introducing it anyway, Messmer thought it might stall in committee. It passed the full Senate 47-0. The bill is “the right thing to do to offer protection to the children in the state,” he said.

Money and studies

bills tableIn the Indiana House, Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, filed two amendments to DCS-related bills. His amendment to House Bill 1406 called for a study to determine the reliability and replacement of the Indiana Support Enforcement Tracking System, the computer program that monitors child support payments, prevailed on a voice vote.

The other amendment to House Bill 1314 called for the appropriation of additional funds for DCS to address the opioid crisis and hike the salaries of agency employees. It failed on a 65-28 vote but did gain support from one Republican, Rep. Julie Olthoff of Crown Point.

Olthoff did not agree with the entire amendment but liked the idea of paying DCS employees more because their jobs are difficult and emotional. She, too, has heard stories from constituents, but before the Legislature tries to apply a fix, she wants to see what the group Holcomb appointed finds and recommends in its final report due in June.

“Everything has a one-up story that can happen, but that doesn’t make it a trend to base something on,” Olthoff said. “I’d like to see a real good, in-depth, researched report of what’s going on there.”

DeLaney is also hoping the consultants’ report provides substantial insight into Indiana’s situation. He has questions about the group hired to do the review, and he worries the final report either could be a “big yawn,” finding nothing is wrong, or could just highlight problems without offering solutions.

Still, he wonders why so many Hoosier children are in foster care compared to other states. He does not know if families are being separated too quickly or if DCS is better adapt at identifying problems and intervening sooner.

While many point to the growing opioid addiction as the crux of the problem, DeLaney believes the true cause is hopelessness. Families that are unstable and not fulfilling their responsibilities to their children see few options for betterment and turn to drugs instead.

“I see children adrift in big numbers,” he said.

Too many cases

About 12 of those children have spent time at the home of Aaron and Jackilin Caudill in Arlington. The couple became foster parents little more than a year ago and work to provide support and structure, keeping the youngsters active whether helping raise chickens, tending the garden or doing homework.

“Every kid’s a good kid. No kid is a bad egg,” Aaron Caudill said while waiting for the Foster Parent Appreciation Day event to begin. “They just have different experiences they’ve been through that traumatizes them. You’ve got to nurture their needs.”

Caudill pointed to a problem plaguing DCS that he says lawmakers could fix — too many cases and too few workers. He’s seen overloaded caseworkers stretched thin, unable to spend time with each child or promptly reply to foster parents’ questions.

Caudill has gotten last-minute notifications that a child will be reunified with biological parents in just hours, causing him and his wife to scramble to get the youngster packed and to say good-bye. Another time, the Caudills were uncertain about whether to seek medical care for a child. They followed their caseworker’s advice and called the DCS hotline, then had to wait 24 hours for a response.

“They’re so overloaded that it makes it a stress on us because we need an answer now and sometimes we need to go above their head,” Caudill said of the DCS workers’ caseload. “I feel that it is their responsibility as legislators to figure out that problem.”

Melton filed an amendment to Zay’s bill, SB 428, that he believes would have helped address the problems of understaffing and high turnover at DCS. He proposed loan forgiveness for family case managers. The amendment never received a vote, but Melton still hopes to attach it to a bill this session.

“I thought it would be a good-faith effort to show the employees that the Legislature understands their issues,” Melton said, “because we need them.”•

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