House speaker ‘disturbed’ DCS failed to act on past reports

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma said Monday he was “disturbed” after finding out the state’s child welfare agency failed to take action after five different reviews conducted in recent years found problems at the agency. The revelation was included in a sixth report on the Department of Child Services, which was released in June by a consultant hired by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb.

The latest report stated, “In five years, external evaluators have prepared five evaluation reports about DCS … A large number of these recommendations have not yet been implemented.” The timeline suggests that most, if not all, were conducted while Vice President Mike Pence was Indiana’s governor.

“I am disturbed by that,” Bosma said after a Statehouse hearing on the findings. “I can tell you that this governor is laser focused on this issue … I know they aren’t going to drop the ball on this one.”

Long-festering problems at the agency erupted into public view last December when former DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned. She accused Holcomb’s administration of making management changes and service cuts that “all but ensure children will die.”

Child welfare cases have skyrocketed across the U.S. in recent years, as has the number of children placed in foster care because their drug-addicted parents can’t care for them. The problem is particularly acute in a handful of states, including Indiana.

But the report by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, the latest consultant brought on to review the agency, raises questions over whether the state acts too quickly to remove kids from their homes over little things, like a parent who tests positive for marijuana. Parental drug abuse was a factor in the removal of 7,015 children from their homes in 2017. That accounts for 55 percent of all removals that year — up from just 28 percent in 2013.

Democratic Sen. Karen Tallian of Portage said what remains unclear is the severity of circumstances in many of those cases.

“Who are these kids that are being removed from their houses and why?” asked Tallian. “This report didn’t tell us that.”

The consultant said one likely factor for the spike in cases was a “culture of fear” at the agency. That’s led child welfare workers to place concern over “personal liability related to actions” above the “long-term well-being of children.”

Paul Vincent, who is director of the group, said a lack of resources, inexperienced workers and a fear of reprisal likely led to a “vicious cycle” where workers would escalate cases out of worry that they would be found responsible. There is a “fear that if they make a mistake they’ll immediately be terminated,” said current DCS Director Terry Stigdon.

Republicans have voiced interest in finding ways to reduce workers’ fear over liability. And Bosma said lawmakers are looking into whether the agency needs more funding.

But Tallian questioned whether modest changes will be enough, or whether the state even has a full understanding of what’s going on.

“To say we can do a couple little legislative changes … I’m not sure we have a handle yet on what is the big picture,” she said.

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