A year ago with long-boiling problems in the Department of Child Services still spilling into the spotlight, the Indiana General Assembly turned its attention to the troubled agency.
Legislators introduced a slew of bills trying to bring more collaboration and making some modest adjustments. Now, a year later, the Statehouse is again taking a look at DCS even as some see improvement in the agency. Lawmakers have introduced more bills and included more provisions that place mandates and requirements on the agency and the courts.
Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, sees the Legislature’s actions as installing some “guardrails” to ensure the people within DCS are acting in the children’s best interest. When any agency is not acting in the best interests of Hoosiers, she said, then the Statehouse has a responsibility to act.
At least nine bills have been filed in the House and 14 in the Senate. The Department of Child Services did not respond to a request for comment on the bills.
House Bill 1006, authored by Rep. Greg Steuerwald, contains provisions that arise from the recommendations made by the Child Welfare and Policy Group, which was brought in by Gov. Eric Holcomb to review the agency, and from the discussions of the interim study committee which examined DCS issues. HB 1006 is distinctive from the other bills in that it mandates a limit on the number of cases family case managers can handle at one time.
Senate Bill 1, authored by Houchin, is a comprehensive measure that includes some provisions that pop up in other bills. Houchin, who once worked for DCS, said her legislation is the result of her long study of children’s issues, which included attending a conference hosted by the Children Need Amazing Parents, a national campaign focused on parents, and drawing from legislation introduced in other statehouses around the country.
Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, acknowledged he introduced his DCS-related bills at the request of some other legislators from the summer study committee.
Even so, he has heard frustrations from constituents about how the system is supposed to work and how it is working. He knows every story has two sides, but he said the common theme in the stories he is hearing is that people feel there is a lack of communication and consistency in the process.
Although he is sensitive about the Legislature overreaching, he does see a need to put some teeth into current policies and rules.
“I do care enough about these issues to make sure I at least have a seat at the table to have a meaningful discussion about the best interests of the children and the foster parents in the system,” Mahan said.
Many bills contain provisions that call for giving foster parents standing in court and allowing them to present evidence and make recommendations. The idea is being championed by Indianapolis attorneys Kiamesha Colom and Joe Delamater and has caught the attention of several legislators as well as some nonprofits and advocacy groups.
The husband and wife put together a detailed recommendation for amending Indiana’s laws regarding foster families after their foster son was removed from their care. They wanted to adopt the baby boy and believed DCS was working toward that goal, but according to the couple, the agency abruptly changed course and quickly put the infant back in his biological mother’s care.
Colom and Delamater were frustrated at not being allowed to speak or provide information during court proceedings. They pointed to a status hearing held for their former-foster son after he was taken from their care. Colom attended, wanting to notify the court of the messages she had received from medical professionals about the infant not being brought in for appointments and tests.
However, according to Colom, when she arrived at court, she was not allowed to speak or pass along the messages and was eventually asked to leave. Both she and Delamater pointed out the notice of the status hearing included language about the right to be heard and present evidence.
“The system is failing and it is the Legislature’s responsibility to hold them accountable to the constituents,” Delamater said. “I don’t think it’s overstepping for the Legislature to come in to ensure the courts are doing what they are supposed to do. If not them, then who?”
The debate stirred by the idea of giving standing to foster parents convinced Houchin to not include that component in SB 1 and instead offer a separate measure, Senate Bill 389, addressing that matter. The senator is concerned that allowing foster parents to have a greater role in court could lead to children languishing in the system and not getting a permanent placement.
Still, she introduced the bill in order to have the debate. She wants to hear what her Statehouse colleagues have to say about the matter.
Tina Cloer, president and CEO of Children’s Bureau, Inc., sympathizes with foster parents but she also has concerns that standing might put into the middle of a case “very well-intentioned” people who are nonetheless focused on avoiding their own heartbreak. The foster parents could possibly end up in court advocating for the child to remain in their family, partially because they are emotionally attached to the child and because they view themselves as being able to better provide for the child.
Echoing a colleague at the Children’s Bureau, Cloer said, “Oftentimes the foster families aren’t included in planning and aren’t communicated with adequately about the direction of the case, so it leads to confusion and them feeling undervalued.”
Curing that problem, Cloer said, does not require legislative action. She maintained if DCS adheres more closely to the “Safely Home-Families First” practice model, that would likely make foster parents feel more included in the process. The model is based on the idea of forming a team to support each child and family DCS is serving. All the parties would be involved in planning, but the parents are viewed as the experts on their own family’s strengths and needs.
Even while they push the Legislature to act, Colom and Delamater said they are seeing some positive changes at DCS.
They believe department director Terry Stigdon and associate director Todd Meyer care and are working to make improvements. Also, they noted, their case manager for their current foster daughter is doing a much better job than the case managers who handled their former foster son’s placement.
Despite the improvements, the Legislature is still looking to act. Both Houchin and Mahan see bipartisan interest in the proposed measures and anticipate some will land on Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk.
“I do believe (SB 1) will get bipartisan support in the Senate as we continue to discuss this issue,” Houchin said. “(The bill) is subject to modification and change, but I look forward to the discussion.”•