INDIANAPOLIS | The Department of Child Services would get additional employees and be obligated to investigate more abuse claims under legislation approved Wednesday by Indiana House and Senate committees.
House Bill 1142 requires DCS to hire 156 new workers to lead investigations and better staff the state's centralized child abuse hotline.
"This is needed to reduce turnover at the hotline, which I can tell you is pretty bad," said state Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City. "Also, it will help reduce the wait times."
He said DCS has a goal of eliminating delays in answering hotline calls.
DCS spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland said the turnover rate at the hotline is 49.6 percent, but many of those employees were promoted or returned to field work.
The proposal, which follows the recommendations of the Legislature's DCS summer study committee, also requires every hotline call be referred to a local DCS office for possible investigation and mandates local DCS officials investigate every abuse or neglect claim reported by education, medical, social work, police or judicial personnel.
The Family, Children and Human Affairs Committee approved the measure 12-0. Its $9 million annual price tag must be approved by the Ways and Means Committee before the measure can advance to the full House.
The DCS hotline has been severely criticized in recent months, especially following the beating death of 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis in November 2011 in South Bend.
The South Bend Tribune reported that six months before his death, the DCS hotline received a 20-minute call from an anonymous person detailing abuse of 10 children that day in a South Bend home, and urging authorities to “please go tonight” to the home. A case manager finally made contact with someone at the home five days later, but no signs of abuse were reported.
Nearly six months later, police found Sturgis beaten to death in the same home. Terry Sturgis, Tramelle’s father, was convicted of murder last year.
The mandatory investigation requirement of abuse reports from certain personnel was separately approved 9-0 by the Senate Judiciary Committee. That legislation, Senate Bill 105, now goes to the full Senate.
That committee also voted 9-0 for Senate Bill 572 re-establishing county-level child fatality committees to review sudden, unexplained child deaths, including deaths caused by child abuse.
Current law requires regional child fatality review teams. The proposal permits counties to continue working together if they choose.
Another horrific case cited by those critical of DCS is that of the death of 13-year-old Christian Choate, whose bruised and emaciated body was found in a shallow grave in May 2011 in a Black Oak mobile park two years after he is believed to have died. Court documents allege the boy was repeatedly beaten for several years and kept in a cage for as long as a year until his death in April 2009.
DCS officials had investigated multiple allegations of abuse and neglect in the Choate household in the years before Christian's death but did not substantiate any wrongdoing in their care of Christian, DCS records show. The teen's father, Riley Choate, 40, pleaded guilty in December to two counts of felony neglect of a dependent and a single count of felony removal of a body from a death scene or altering a death scene. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison in January. The teen's stepmother, Kimberly Kubina, 47, pleaded guilty to felony neglect in May for her role in the abuse. She faces 25 to 35 years in prison when sentenced Feb. 19.
In the case of 1-1/2-year-old Anthony Mogen, of Lowell, Lake County's Child Fatality Review Team determined his Oct. 5, 2008, death was "definitely" preventable. Bruises covered the toddler's body, his liver was lacerated into separate pieces and his collarbone was broken, coroner's office records state. His death was ruled a homicide.
One by one, family members either called or wrote DCS, Anthony's grandmother Cindi Szany said.
Anthony's uncle Nick Szany was one of the last to contact child services, forwarding a DCS employee a letter he'd written about the suspected abuse, an email dated Sept. 22, 2008, shows. The email was provided to The Times by the family.
"Is today the day (Anthony) gets another fractured skull, or maybe another leg injury that makes him limp for three weeks again?" Nick Szany wrote in the email. "Every day is another day I am scared for a child that will be lucky to see the age of five."
Anthony died the next month in the midst of a DCS investigation into his safety.*
*Cutlines have been changed in this story after it was published.