Holding her infant foster daughter, attorney Kiamesha Colom explained in simple terms a 13-page bill that revamps parts of Indiana’s foster care system. Come July 1, she and her husband, like other long-term foster parents around the state, will be able to have more of a say in the care and protection of their baby.
Colom and her family were at the Indiana Statehouse on Thursday afternoon for the ceremonial signing of two monumental bills that seek to reform the state’s child welfare system and the Department of Child Services. Senate Enrolled Act 1, authored by Sen. Erin Houchin, focuses on foster parents, while House Enrolled Act 1006, authored by Rep. Greg Steuerwald, mandates changes to the internal operations at DCS.
Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the both bills after praising DCS and the lawmakers. He then handed the pens to Houchin and Steuerwald while the audience of state officials, DCS workers and foster parents applauded.
“I feel good about the legislation,” Colom said of SEA 1. “I think that a lot of goals were accomplished and that there were some creative solutions and negotiations on either side.”
Colom, partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, and her husband, Joe Delamater, attorney at Razumich & Delamater P.C., were very active during the 2019 General Assembly session. The couple joined many other foster parents in working to get the Legislature, the courts and DCS to give them more of a role in deciding the best interests of the children.
Primarily, the pair wanted the law amended to give foster parents standing. Although several bills introduced at the beginning of the session included language allowing foster parents to have standing in court, the provision did not survive. Houchin even had a separate bill providing for standing but withdrew the measure and strengthened the intervention section in SEA 1.
“It was better for us to reach at least 65 to 70 percent of getting to standing than to walk away from the table and perhaps let the bill die completely,” Colom said. “So I was willing (to compromise) because there’s so much other amazing good stuff in that bill, we did not want to let that go.”
The bills by Houchin, R-Salem, and Steuerwald, R-Avon, were largely the product of the Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary that examined a series of recommendations from the Child Welfare and Policy Group. The Alabama-based organization was hired by the governor’s office in 2018 to review DCS and provide suggestions for improving the troubled agency.
At the bill-signing ceremony, DCS executive director Terry Stigdon trumpeted the achievements of her agency. The improvements include a nearly 19 percent reduction in turnover of family case managers, 99 percent compliance with the caseload standard, reduced caseloads for agency attorneys, and an improved attorney training program with emphasis on litigation and trial advocacy skills.
“DCS has been working tirelessly to make significant changes across the state to continue improving the lives of those we are honored to serve,” Stigdon said in a statement. “We want all Hoosiers to know we are doing everything we can to help promote positive outcomes and deliver on our mission by helping the right child at the right time in the right way.”
However, noting children have died while they were involved with DCS, Colom said more work needs to be done. She advocated, in particular, for the immediate removal of any baby born into a home where the other children have already been taken by DCS.
“Far too many of the deaths that have occurred as reported by the news are occurring in those types of situations and it would just make sense” to remove the newborns, Colom said. “So I think that’s an easy policy that can be enacted and sort of low-hanging fruit to save some kids’ lives.”
The provisions in Steuerwald’s bill include updating the DCS caseload standard to align with the Child Welfare League of America best practices, extending the deadline to 45 days for DCS to send an assessment update in order to allow for more complete reporting, and amending the definition of neglect to exclude poverty as a sole justification.
Going forward, Houchin said the Legislature will remain in contact with foster parents and juvenile judges to monitor the implementation of the law. Her bill also includes additional training for juvenile court judges to ensure they know the law and the rights foster parents have.
Like Colom, Houchin praised the level of cooperation among the different groups — juvenile court judges, foster parents, Department of Child Services, the General Assembly and the governor’s office — in helping to craft the final draft of SEA 1. She called the measure a “great first step” for foster families and credited them with being the driving factor behind the bill.
“… So the end product, I think, was a very balanced bill that really will do a lot for our foster families to give them rights in the courtroom,” Houchin said. “They are the strongest advocates, oftentimes, that some of these children have. So, we needed to make sure that their voices were heard in these very important decisions being made on behalf of children in their care.”