As Senate Enrolled Act 1 was heading for its third and final reading in the Indiana House of Representatives, Rep. Vanessa Summers reminded her colleagues that their work in helping reform the Department of Child Services is not finished.
“Senate Bill 1 is a very important first step,” the Indianapolis Democrat said before the measure went to a vote.
The Indiana General Assembly’s focus on DCS and the flood of children in need of services was renewed during the summer of 2018. For four lengthy hearings, the House Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary undertook an intensive examination of the evaluation of the department by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group.
A result of those hearings was House Enrolled Act 1006, authored by Rep. Greg Steuerwald, which revamps some of the DCS policies and procedures for handling abused and neglected children. The companion SEA 1, authored by Sen. Erin Houchin, includes provisions regarding foster parents, CHINS and the courts.
Both bills passed the Statehouse with bipartisan support and are expected to be signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb. Support in the Legislature is strong for DCS director Terry Stigdon, and many appear confident that the agency is on better footing.
But Summers offered the reminder they cannot quit paying attention. The root problem that gave rise to the state’s foster children crisis is still percolating.
“With the onset of the opioid crisis, foster care has become,” she said before pausing and taking a weary breath, “it’s overrun, it’s bustling. It has more children than the capacity can take.”
According to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, 20,904 Hoosier kids were placed in foster care in 2017. This number was exceeded only by placements in California, Texas and Florida — the nation’s most populous states.
That same year, 20,068 new CHINS cases were filed in Indiana state courts, as reported by the Indiana Office of Judicial Administration. The filings dropped to 15,375 in 2018 and provisional data show 2,758 CHINS cases were filed in the first quarter of 2019.
Summers told her fellow Representatives they must keep their eye on foster children.
“What we find with our foster youth is that if you give them a chance and you give them a way to get what they need, they will figure it out,” she said. If foster children cannot go back to their biological families, “then we need to be able to give them a way to make theirselves whole and they don’t need to be the lost children.”
Pain into activism
Behind the statistics and statutes are broken families and vulnerable children.
Joe Delamater and Kiamesha Colom, a pair of Indianapolis attorneys, were among the foster parents who told their story to Indiana legislators and pushed for action. They turned to political activism after their newborn foster son was abruptly taken from their care and returned to his biological mother.
The couple shared their heartbreak with the summer study committee and presented a detailed proposal to amend the Indiana Code. Their goal was for foster families to have more of a say in what is in the best interest of the child. Central to that goal was giving foster parents standing.
Houchin, R-Salem, introduced Senate Bill 389, which provided standing to foster parents who had been caring for a child for at least six months. The bill received a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but before being voted on, Houchin pulled the measure and added language in SEA 1 to allow foster parents the right to intervene in CHINS and termination of parent-child relationship proceedings.
“I hope it will give long-term foster parents more of an opportunity to be heard in the court and to advocate on behalf of the children in their care,” Houchin said in an email. “… (DCS) has been working to improve foster parent relations and I believe these changes will facilitate good decisions being made on behalf of vulnerable children.”
Although they were unable to gain standing, Delamater and Colom feel good that the conversation has shifted to include foster parents. The path was not easy. They attended multiple hearings throughout the legislative session and met privately with legislators, advocating for what they described as “common sense” solutions.
The couple noted if the laws now on the governor’s desk had been in place previously, they might not have lost their foster son. Pushing for change was a way they dealt with their pain.
“It’s been incredibly rewarding and incredibly difficult,” Delamater said of their work at the Statehouse. “Kiamesha deserves a lot of the credit because she was able to dedicate a lot to the behind-the-scenes effort. I am very proud of the result because of the work she has been able to put into this.”
HEA 1006 seeks to lower the number of kids in foster care by increasing the deadline to 45 days for DCS to submit a report following an allegation of child abuse or neglect.
The original language of the statute gave DCS 30 days, but Steuerwald, R-Avon, said the summer study committee learned a month was not long enough. Removing minors from their homes and placing them in foster care is a divisive and hot-button topic, as the committee learned when it heard four hours of testimony from people who said DCS was taking too many children followed by another four hours from people who maintained DCS was not taking enough.
Steuerwald, who chaired the summer committee, said the goal of change was to avoid the default practice being removal. The committee wanted DCS to be able to make an informed decision.
Another provision of HEA 1006 limits the caseloads of the DCS family case managers. Instead of the current 17 children limit, managers will not be able to have any more than 12 families receiving in-home services or 13 children in out-of-home placement.
According to DCS, caseloads have been falling. In January 2018, the department had 2,001 caseload-carrying family case managers, which translated into 77 percent compliance statewide with the current standard. By March 2019, the agency had 2,182 caseload-carrying managers, which brought compliance to 97 percent.
Ensuring DCS does not exceed the caseload caps will have to fall to the Statehouse. In 2017, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled the judiciary could do nothing about enforcing the 17-children limit.
Mary Price, a family case manager, filed a lawsuit when her caseload swelled to 43 children. However, in Mary Price v. Indiana Department of Child Services, the justices held they could not force DCS to comply with state law because the statute said only the “department shall ensure” and the “department shall comply.” The issue, according to the court, was that the law did not spell out what specific actions DCS had to take to meet the standard.
Steuerwald’s bill does not include any steps DCS must follow to comply, but he said the General Assembly has the agency on its radar and will act if the limits are disregarded.
“If DCS is not submitting to the mandate, we’ll deal with it in the Legislature next session,” he said, adding, “I do not anticipate that being an issue at all.”•