Group says high workload, too much court involvement play role in issues plaguing Indiana DCS

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - A group tasked with doing a full review of Indiana's Department of Child Services (DCS) revealed their findings about the problems plaguing the agency Monday in a 116-page report.

Officials addressed the report during a 1:30 p.m. press conference, which can be watched in the player above. The full report can be found here.

The Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group (CWG) was asked by Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb to examine the performance of the agency and compare it to accepted national standards, identify strengths and challenges, and produce recommendations for areas that need improvement.

The group was hired in December in the wake of a scathing resignation letter from his outgoing Department of Child Services director. Mary Beth Bonaventura accused Holcomb’s administration of cutting services and making management changes that “all but ensure children will die.”

The assessment began in January after Terry Stigdon assumed role as DCS director.

"DCS had been dealing with rising numbers of child abuse and neglect referrals for several years and an increasing number of children entering out-of-home care," CWG said.

In 2017, Indiana's rate of children in out-of-home care was more than twice the national average. CWG says this is a reflection of the opioid crisis.

CWG focused on state-level operations in Indianapolis and five regions: Allen, Clark, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh.

Some of the strengths of DCS included in the report:

  • High level of interest and support for DCS at executive and legislative levels.
  • Almost half the children in out-of-home care are placed with relatives.
  • DCS is available online and accessible both internally and externally.
  • DCS is hiring 16 new attorneys to help address high workloads.
  • Permanency outcomes for children in out-of home care in Indiana meet or approach national standards.

Challenges of DCS in the report include:

  • Very high rate of children in out-of-home care.
  • Exceptionally high rate of court involvement in child welfare cases.
  • DCS experiences uneven workloads that in some cases far exceed caseload standards.
  • Uneven interpretation and implementation of policies across countries.
  • High attorney turnover, and many attorneys have limited trial experience.

The group found these data among others to be particularly notable:

  • Only three states have a higher rate of abuse and neglect referrals than Indiana.
  • Despite completing more assessments than almost any state, Indiana substantiated only 15 percent of those assessments.
  • Of the removals in 2017, 55 percent were related to prenatal substance abuse.
  • Nearly 45 percent of family case managers have caseloads above the state standard.
  • Indiana's rate of children in care is 13 per 1,000 children compared to the national rate of 3.6.

CWG recommended DCS take several steps to address its challenges.

The group says DCS intervention shouldn't be the first resource for families struggling with substance abuse. Treatment and resources must be made available outside of DCS with outreach to make sure parents are educated about the resources.

CWG also recommends DCS double the length of their assessment time from 30 days to 60 days, with supervisory oversight.

DCS should also attempt to engage families voluntarily in services to support child safety and avoid court oversight when possible.

"Indiana children and families would likely benefit from lower rates of court involvement in the context of child welfare intervention," CWG says in the report.

The report indicated a culture of fear in the department and case load for workers are major contributing factors to the problems. Stigdon said that ends today.

Gov. Holcomb directed the Office of Management and Budget to make available $25 million from the state’s surplus immediately to begin implementing the recommendations.

DCS Director Terry Stigdon will develop priorities, but the governor intends to improve salaries, training and opportunities for critical, on-the-ground DCS employees who work with vulnerable children and their families every day.

Former Boone County Prosecutor Todd Meyer has been appointed by Stigdon to serve as DCS associate director. He will focus on implementing the recommendations from the report.

“I’m honored by this opportunity to impact the lives of our most vulnerable,” Meyer said. “As a prosecutor, I worked collaboratively with the local DCS office and together we were able to tackle challenging cases. My mission in this new role is to ensure DCS implements and sustains these recommendations.”

Foster families are also getting help.

"DCS will begin work to make sure foster families have adequate support while also increasing efforts to add more foster families by the end of 2019. To give young adult Hoosiers in need more help, Stigdon said the agency will work to extend the age so that foster youth can receive services from 21 to 23," the governor's office said.

Officials say the immediate actions are just a stop in a longer process to transform the agency.