DCS director claims lawsuit is ‘misleading and harmful’

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Claiming outside advocates were relying on “an inflammatory and outdated account,” Indiana Department of Child Services director Terry Stigdon released a video statement Monday in response to the lawsuit filed last week charging the state agency with inflicting further harm on children entering the foster care system.

The seven-and-a-half-minute video features Stigdon as she outlines the changes DCS has made under her leadership and thanks Gov. Eric Holcomb, Indiana legislators and others for their support. She also distinguishes her agency as being markedly different from what it was under the previous director, Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura who resigned in December 2017.

Stigdon said within the past year, the number of children being put into foster care has declined, staffing has improved to having one supervisor for every 5.5 family case managers and the turnover rate among the employees has dropped 18 percent. In addition, she added, the culture of the agency has shifted from one of fear to one of support and safety.

“Our agency has undergone a transformation since I stepped into this position 18 months ago,” Stigdon said in the video. “Put frankly, DCS is simply not the agency it used to be, and continuing to rely on an inflammatory and outdated account is misleading and harmful to children and their families.”

She further said DCS would have shared its successes if the groups behind the lawsuit had approached the agency’s leadership.

“But to my knowledge, no significant effort to reach out with their concerns was ever made,” Stigdon said. “Instead we are surprised with public allegations that demoralize our employees just as they have begun to feel hopeful about the positive changes we are making.”

Indiana Disability Rights along with the New York-based A Better Childhood and Kirkland & Ellis filed a class action against DCS on behalf of the Hoosier children who are in the foster care system. The complaint, Ashley W. and Betty W. et al. v. Eric Holcomb, et al., 3:19-cv-129, includes stories of minor children who have been transferred between multiple foster homes and some who have ended up in private secure institutions.

Noting Indiana’s high rate of putting children in foster care, the advocacy groups assert DCS is placing the youngsters in inappropriate, unstable or overly restrictive environments and failing to provide them with the support services as well as the medical and mental health care they need.

Stigdon called the time of the lawsuit “puzzling” since, she said, the agency took responsibility for its shortcomings a year ago and has made improvements.

“It is easy to cherry pick our most challenging cases to support a narrative suggesting this is every child’s experience when in reality the average number of homes a foster child lives in while in DCS care is two,” she said.

Stigdon acknowledged problems remain and said she understands the frustration that change is not instantaneous. However, she said, turning around a 4,600-employee agency currently serving more than 22,000 children takes “deliberate and persistent effort.”

“I don’t doubt we will continue to be criticized for past mistakes, but we are on the road to success,” Stigdon said. “We cannot and will not allow this to distract us from our mission and that’s to keep our children safe.”

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