Study committee to return spotlight to DCS

While the firestorm over the Indiana Department of Child Services has died down, the Indiana General Assembly is preparing to begin its examination of the agency and possibly make recommendations for action during the 2019 legislative session.

The Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Wednesday in Room 431 of the Statehouse to review a host of issues related to DCS. Those topics include looking at the definitions of “child abuse or neglect” and the laws governing maximum caseloads, as well as exploring the laws that require the agency to respond within 24 hours to every report that a child is in imminent danger and to complete each assessment within 30 days.

Not included on the list is an examination of the in-house legal staff, but Sen. Travis Holdman, vice chair of the interim committee, is planning to push for a change. In particular, the Markle Republican wants DCS to return to contracting its legal work with local law firms instead of keeping a staff of lawyers in-house.

Hiring outside representation, Holdman said, would likely bring in attorneys who have more experience in family law and have practiced before the local judges. Currently, Holdman said, the DCS legal staff is plagued with high turnover, attorneys who do not have enough experience and who do not seem prepared for court. 

“I’ve heard more stories of that kind where attorneys do not show up (for court) or show up and ask for a continuance,” Holdman said of DCS attorneys. He added that he could not imagine anything more “disheartening and demoralizing” for a case manager than to arrive at court, have everyone ready to testify and then realize the DCS lawyer is not coming.

Under Holdman’s plan, the agency would transition to contract attorneys rather than making an abrupt switch. Local law firms would be signed on as the in-house lawyers leave DCS.

“I think it just makes sense,” Holdman said.

While the agendas for the Sept. 5 and the Sept. 19 committee hearings include a heavy focus on the Department of Child Services, missing is any assessment of the Indiana Support Enforcement Tracking System. As part of its assignment, the committee was charged with also looking at ISETS, the outdated computer system which the agency uses to log and dispense nearly $1 billion in child support payments each year.

Whether the committee is going to hold an additional hearing to discuss the computer system is unclear.

Overall, Holdman is hoping the legislative study committee does not veer from following the recommendations made by the Alabama-based Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group. He wants the Statehouse to let director Terry Stigdon do her work.

“I think she is the right person for the job,” Holdman said, noting she is getting involved with the field offices and has visited some families.

The Child Welfare group was hired by Gov. Eric Holcomb after former DCS executive director Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned in December 2017. Notably, the outside consultants highlighted that from 2005 to 2017, Indiana had an 89.4 percent increase in the number of children in foster care, while surrounding states all reported decreases ranging from 9.8 percent to 39.4 percent.

Holdman echoed many when he pointed out that children suffer acute trauma when they are removed from their homes. But, he maintained, DCS is not acting alone. The courts have to approve the order for removal.

The lawmaker wondered what role the courts are playing if Indiana is an outlier state. Consequently, he said he has talked to Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush about the need to train state judges on DCS matters.  

Even before the Child Welfare report was released, the Legislature advanced several DCS-related bills. At least 14 measures were introduced and eight were put on the governor’s desk in 2018, and Holdman expects the same for the 2019 session regardless of what the interim study committee recommends.

“If nothing comes out of committee,” he said, “I think there are enough concerned people in the Legislature that we’ll see a number of bills flowing out there.”

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