DCS ‘ambushed’ by GOP senators ahead of proposal to switch to contract attorneys in 2 regions, source says

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Indiana Statehouse (IL file photo)

A Senate Republican plan to switch from in-house attorneys to contractors in two Indiana Department of Child Services regions caught the agency off guard and followed a meeting in which agency executives were “ambushed” by a group of senators, a DCS source familiar with the meeting told Indiana Lawyer.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, said he was invited to sit in on the meeting.

Freeman said it is “astronomically insane” to refer to the meeting as an ambush.

The group of senators also included Sens. Ryan Mishler, R-Mishawaka; Travis Holdman, R-Markle; and Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, according to the source, who spoke to IL on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the matter.

The senators asked two executives “a bunch of questions” at the meeting in late March at the Statehouse, the source said, and the executives said they would follow up with answers.

Freeman described the meeting as a routine part of the budget process.

Now, the agency, along with other child welfare advocates, are trying to make sense of a budget amendment from Senate Republicans to replace DCS attorneys in Region 4 and Region 10 with contractors, a move some advocates say would be detrimental to children in the system.

Region 4 consists of LaGrange, Steuben, Noble, Whitley, DeKalb and Allen counties. Region 10 consists only of Marion County.

DCS wasn’t aware of the plan until the Senate released its version of the state budget bill, the source said.

Mishler, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement the committee has evening meetings and “various working groups on different topics.”

“We reached out to DCS, like we did many other groups, to present and answer questions about their budget requests,” he said. “After we met with them, the group stayed and discussed. The lawyers in the group talked and came up with this pilot project. I was supportive of this pilot project.”

According to the added section in the budget, beginning Dec. 31, DCS could “not employ” staff attorneys to perform legal services and provide representation in child in need of services cases, delinquency cases and “similar legal matters” in the two regions.

Instead, the agency would use contract attorneys as part of a pilot program.

The budget says the program would be implemented beginning Jan. 1, 2024. DCS would have to submit a report on the program by Oct. 1 each year detailing the costs incurred, caseload volume, average time for termination of parental rights and average time for disposition.

The program would cost $7.38 million, which would be redirected from DCS, according to a budget presentation.

“I think DCS said they had like 400-some lawyers and 60-some supervising lawyers, and there seems to be kind of a backlog,” Mishler said at a committee meeting last week. “So we said let’s try using the local lawyers in those two regions to see if we can move these cases and get them going faster, get these kids into a home, out of the system.”

Mishler did not respond to questions about the “backlog” he referenced.

The Indiana Supreme Court publishes performance data for trial courts with jurisdiction over CHINS and TPR cases. It showed in fiscal year 2022, for example, that time to permanency for reunification in Region 10 was 486 days, compared to a statewide average of 411 days. In Region 4, that number was 545 days.

A DCS spokesperson said they weren’t aware of any existing record that corresponds with a backlog of cases and referred IL to the agency’s public records department. A records request is pending.

The Senate approved its version of the budget Tuesday, and the House and Senate will now negotiate a final budget.

Sen. Faddy Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis, proposed an amendment on second reading that would have removed the pilot program, partly citing financial concerns.

“If we’re going to pay for this so-called pilot, we’re going to be paying market prices, hourly rates for lawyers in the community,” he said, “which exceeds how much we currently pay for DCS.”

The amendment was voted down mostly along party lines.

Child welfare advocates respond

The results of the pilot program would be “devastating,” according to Heather Edmands from the Marion County Public Defender Agency.

Edmands, the agency’s division chief of CHINS and TPR, said DCS attorneys have a special relationship with their clients.

“To turn that job into a contract position is going to bring the system to a screeching halt,” she said.

Lindsay Scott, president and CEO of Kids’ Voice Indiana, said advocates are worried about getting contractors up to speed.

There are a lot of players involved in child welfare cases, she said, from case workers to attorneys to court-appointed advocates.

Kids’ Voice has a contract with the city of Indianapolis to provide guardian ad litem and court-appointed special advocate services to Marion Superior Courts.

Churubusco-based guardian ad litem Stephen Griebel has experience as a contract attorney for child welfare matters in the days before DCS became an independent agency in 2005.

He said that’s an example of how such a program might be able to work.

“It just needs to have a lot of people do the necessary legwork and homework to put together a very thorough plan and implement that plan,” Griebel said.

A 2018 report from the Commission on Improving the Status of Children in Indiana found that out of 157 survey respondents, 53% preferred an in-house model, 15% preferred contractors, and 32% preferred a hybrid model.

Respondents represented CASA/GAL programs, judicial officers and defense attorneys.

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