DCS reform bills whittled down but advancing

The effort to give foster parents standing in cases involving abused and neglected children has stalled in the Statehouse, with none of the surviving bills related to the Indiana Department of Child Services including the provision.

Sen. Erin Houchin’s measure, Senate Bill 389, which focused solely on the standing issue, was presented to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, but the Salem Republican pulled the bill before the committee voted in February.

houchin-erin_mug_politician Houchin

Two other bills, one in the House and the other in the Senate, also would have provided foster parents with standing in court proceedings. However, neither House Bill 1167, authored by Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, nor SB 534, authored by Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, received a committee hearing.

Houchin had purposely crafted SB 389 as a separate bill from her comprehensive DCS measure, SB 1, in order to hear the debate on the issue of standing. Her legislation granted foster parents standing and allowed them to be heard, present evidence and make recommendations at dispositional hearings.

However, after hearing testimony that included support from foster parents and opposition from juvenile court judges, the senator decided the Statehouse did not have the appetite to address the matter. Houchin said she pulled foster parents, judges and DCS officials together and reached a compromise to strengthen the intervention provision in SB 1. The language enables foster parents to intervene in proceedings for children in need of services and termination of parental rights.

Improving foster parents’ ability to participate in court hearings was necessary, the senator said, but the decision to give foster parents standing requires further study by the Legislature.

Although that issue has stalled, at least for the 2019 legislative session, other DCS bills have gained overwhelming support and seem to have the momentum to land on the governor’s desk. Roughly 25 pieces of legislation were introduced in January that focused on either foster families, DCS procedures or care for children in need of services. Eight survive and are awaiting hearings in the opposite chambers.

DCS has been a concern for the Legislature since the former executive director, Mary Beth Bonaventura, abruptly resigned in December 2017. After her exit, Terry Stigdon, former clinical director of operations at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, was appointed to serve as the new executive director of DCS, and the Alabama-based Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group provided a series of recommendations for improving the agency.

steuerwald-greg-mug-2019 Steuerwald

The Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary held hearings on the recommendations and, as a result, crafted House Bill 1006. Authored by committee chair Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, the measure moved quickly through the lower chamber with no opposition and arrived in the Senate before the end of January.

Provisions in the bill spotlight the internal operations of DCS. Specifically, the bill includes language limiting the workload of family case managers and mandating that poverty cannot be the sole reason for removing a child from the home.

Also, as suggested by CWG, the bill increases from one hour to two the time DCS has to initiate an assessment after receiving a report of child abuse or neglect, and increases the deadline from 30 days to 45 days for the agency to provide a report on that assessment. At the hearing before the House Committee on Family, Children and Human Affairs, Steuerwald explained the expansions were added to give DCS workers more time to do a thorough analysis.

Houchin’s SB 1 covers a range of issues focused on DCS operations and foster families. Along with reworking the language on intervention, Houchin also folded in a provision from SB 311, authored by Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis. That bill required DCS to notify the foster family if the same child was removed again from the biological parents’ home and allowed DCS to waive the limit on the number of children that may be placed in a single foster home in certain circumstances.

Already, Houchin’s bill had the language giving foster parents the right to have a child returned to them, so she just added the waiver language from Merritt’s bill.

Like HB 1006, SB 1 did not have any opposition and has moved to the House, with Reps. Mahan and Steuerwald joining as sponsors. Houchin is optimistic, believing the measure has widespread support.

The other DCS bills still moving through the Legislature are as follows:

HB 1198, authored by Rep. David Frizzell, R-Indianapolis, defines “child” for purposes of filing a termination of parental rights petition and allows DCS workers to restrict access to their home addresses on a public property database. This bill passed 95-0 and has picked up bipartisan support, with Republican Sen. Ron Grooms, Jeffersonville, and Democratic Sen. Jean Breaux, Indianapolis, joining as sponsors.

HB 1432, authored by Rep. Karlee Macer, D-Indianapolis, requires a CHINS dispositional decree to give a reasonable opportunity to a parent who is incarcerated and has sustained a meaningful role in the child’s life to maintain that relationship with the child. The measure passed the House on a 96-0 vote, with Sens. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, and David Niezgodski, D-South Bend, included as sponsors.

HB 1500, authored by Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, requires DCS to issue a report annually about the kinship care navigator program. The bill passed the House on a 97-0 vote and has picked up Democratic Sens. J.D. Ford and Greg Taylor, both of Indianapolis, along with Republican Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, as sponsors.

SB 170, authored by Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, requires that reports of child fatalities include whether the death occurred while in foster care or after return to the biological parent. This legislation passed the House 48-0 vote. Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville, has signed on as the sponsor.

SB 365, authored by Republican Sen. Andy Zay, Huntington, allows DCS to collaborate with other programs that help families in crisis. The bill passed on a 40-0 vote. Republican Reps. Frizzell, Matt Lehman of Berne, Timothy Wesco of Osceola and Ethan Manning of Peru all have joined as sponsors.

SB 527, authored by Houchin, provides a temporary permit to individuals who meet the educational requirements for a licensed social worker. The measure passed the Senate 49-0, and Rep. Dale DeVon, R-Granger, has signed on as a sponsor.•

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