Terry Stigdon

Terry Stigdon is director of the Indiana Department of Child Services.

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Eric Holcomb has appointed a central Indiana children's hospital leader to succeed Mary Beth Bonaventura as Department of Child Services director.

The Republican chief executive also announced Thursday that the state is contracting with the nonprofit, Alabama-based Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group to conduct a top-to-bottom assessment of DCS programs, practices, systems, staffing, funding and results.

The new DCS director, Terry J. Stigdon, currently is clinical director of operations at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health in Indianapolis where she oversees strategy, finance, personnel, research and programs for several hospital divisions, including emergency, trauma and nursing.

Holcomb said he selected Stigdon to lead the state child protection agency because she has "in-depth, firsthand experience in the issues faced by the children and families" served by DCS.

"She has dedicated her life to saving and improving the lives of young Hoosiers, and she will bring a passion for this critically important work," Holcomb said.

Stigdon, who began her career at Riley in 1998 as a pediatric intensive care staff nurse, said she is honored to have the opportunity to use her experience to improve the lives of Hoosier children and families throughout the state.

"I look forward to working hand-in-hand with other agency leaders and the caring team of public servants at DCS to continue and improve our positive impact for kids and communities," Stigdon said.

Both Dr. Jennifer Walthall, director of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, and State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box praised the governor for selecting Stigdon to lead DCS.

"This is an opportunity for the Department of Health, FSSA and Child Services to align our work to reduce the opioid epidemic and improve infant mortality and health outcomes for children and adults — with one collaborative team," Box said.

Stigdon's first day at DCS will be Jan. 22. Sam Criss, DCS deputy director, is serving as interim DCS director following Bonaventura's Dec. 26 resignation.

DCS on the precipice

Stigdon is inheriting an agency that Bonaventura said she chose to leave rather than be complicit in Holcomb management and spending policies that Bonaventura claimed "all but ensure children will die."

The former Lake County juvenile court judge said since Holcomb took office in January she was "DCS director in name only," with many decisions being made by Eric Miller, the governor's hand-picked DCS chief of staff, and agency spending matters dictated by Holcomb's budget officials.

In recent years, DCS also has struggled to keep up with a surge of children being removed from dangerous homes where one or more parents are addicted to opioid drugs and unable or unwilling to properly care for their children.

Bonaventura said in her fiery resignation letter: "I wish nothing but success for the agency and my successor; however, without serious change in the way the governor's office approaches child welfare and the needs of vulnerable children, I fear lives will be lost and families ruined."

Holcomb disagreed with Bonaventura's characterization of DCS funding, pointing to substantial annual budget increases approved by the General Assembly in April and an extra $137 million given to DCS in June.

"We are providing record funding to DCS with nearly half a billion dollars more in funding support over the next two years," Holcomb said. "We will continue to do all we can to protect children."

At the same time, Holcomb believes a complete, outside assessment of DCS is needed to understand what the child protection agency is doing right, what needs improvement and how Indiana compares with other states.

The Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, which has performed similar work in 20 states, is scheduled to begin its DCS review Jan. 3.

Its final report to the governor and the new DCS director is due in the spring.

Holcomb said he expects the findings will inform future DCS operations to ensure state resources are deployed effectively, so all Hoosier children in need of services are kept safe and healthy.

"I'm encouraged and optimistic about what Indiana can accomplish to improve DCS and, in turn, the lives of Hoosier kids and families," Holcomb said.

"With insights and guidance from the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group and strong leadership in place in our state agencies, Indiana is positioned for even better outcomes for children in the future."

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Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.