Indiana’s struggling child welfare system to test Gov. Holcomb

Gov. Eric Holcomb

INDIANAPOLIS — Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has remained largely silent as children’s advocates, including a member of his own cabinet, say bean counting by his administration has starved Indiana’s child welfare agency amid a soaring number of cases fueled by the opioid epidemic.

The number of children placed in foster care because their addict parents can’t care for them has surged across the U.S. But the problem is particularly acute in a handful of states including Indiana.

Now, what advocates describe as a growing crisis faced by the Department of Child Services will test not only the rookie governor, but also whether a state government re-engineered over a decade to comport with conservative ideals can address a systemic problem with no easy solution.

“We’re dying out here,” said Marion County juvenile court Judge Marilyn A. Moores, a Republican. “I get there are many people who don’t want to fund addicts. But the children of addicts, they are the true innocent victims of this. If we don’t protect them, who are we going to protect?”

Drug-related foster cases shot up across Indiana more than six-fold between 2000 and 2015. Evansville’s Vanderburgh County, with a population of 179,000, had more children of drug users enter foster care than major cities including Seattle, Miami and Las Vegas. And in Marion County, cases involving drugs went from about 20 percent of foster children in 2010 to 50 percent five years later.

Earlier this month, Holcomb’s child welfare chief wrote a scathing resignation letter. In it, outgoing DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura said service cuts and management changes “all but ensure children will die.”

“I choose to resign, rather than be complicit in decreasing the safety, permanency and well-being of children who have nowhere else to turn,” she wrote.

Holcomb has not responded to specific concerns raised by Bonaventura, who could not be reached for comment.

His allies say there is little to gain by stoking a public feud with the well-respected former Lake County juvenile court judge with more than 36 years in the field. She was appointed to lead DCS in 2013 by then-Gov. Mike Pence.

But Holcomb has pushed back against accusations that his administration cut funding, noting the agency’s budget increased by $450 million since he took office in early January 2017.

Without going into specifics, his office defends agency changes as necessary to ensure limited taxpayer dollars are used effectively.

“We are asking DCS to be responsible and make good judgments to optimize the resources they have to protect children,” Holcomb spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson said Thursday. “We expect the same of all state agencies.”

Still, recent funding increases belie dramatic cuts made to the agency after a tax code overhaul championed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels eliminated local property taxes as DCS’s primary source of funding. Holcomb was one of Daniels’ chief advisers.

It’s taken until now for state funding to reach the same level of state and local funding DCS received in 2008 under the old system, a review of fiscal records shows. That, however, does not take into account inflation or the spike in cases placing additional burden on the agency.

Political partisans were quick to pounce in the wake of Bonaventura’s resignation letter.

Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody questioned whether Holcomb’s time in office would be defined by easy “layups” or “a bold, new game plan.”

“Governor Holcomb can be a transformative leader or just another politician,” Zody said. “The window for the governor to choose and take bold action is quickly closing.”

Meanwhile, DCS’ recent annual report painted a bleak picture. The beleaguered agency does not have enough caseworkers to meet a minimum requirement set in state law. It also has trouble retaining those who are hired for the demanding job, which pays about $33,000 to $35,000 a year.

“It’s a daily struggle. I haven’t had the sense that they’ve prioritized hiring case managers,” Moores said. “We’re down 100 case managers in Marion County alone.”

In October, Moores says she was notified that a retroactive cut of 17 percent would be made to a pot of money funding preventative programs that help keep kids out of the system.

Foster parents say DCS is as an agency engaged in perpetual triage, with a staff stretched so thin that they often have little choice but to cut corners. Meanwhile, some programs designed to help foster families offset costs have long wait lists, forcing them to pay costs out of pocket.

“It seems like it is getting worse,” said Terry Coomler, a foster parent of six years from Fishers. “It’s not getting better. I don’t see any solutions.”

Holcomb said in an interview this month — before the DCS crisis erupted — that the challenges of being governor weigh on him.

One moment he hears about someone’s wildest successes, the next he’s told about a son or daughter that overdosed.

“Everything comes to you: The good, and the bad, and the unknown,” Holcomb said. “When you are reviewing child services cases — the people on the front lines, they are angels. I don’t know how they do it. Those interactions have a profound impact.”