INDIANAPOLIS | On Aug. 22, the General Assembly's interim study committee on the Indiana Department of Child Services will convene the first in a series of meetings to discuss the state agency's policies and procedures.
DCS has faced heavy criticism from legislators and child advocates throughout the state over the deaths of several Indiana children whose families had prior contact with DCS. They also have challenged the operation of DCS' centralized abuse and neglect hotline.
"Our primary goal is to share with legislators and the public what we do, how we're striving to provide better outcomes and the promising results we're getting," John Ryan, DCS chief of staff, said in a written statement. "We also are eager to hear concerns in a fair and constructive manner that leads to solutions that really do help children and families."
State Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, said she hopes the committee will focus on areas where DCS needs to improve, rather than on its proclaimed successes.
She questioned the state agency's success this spring during a community meeting in Merrillville.
VanDenburgh pointed to the beating death of 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis in November in South Bend. She said DCS officials also should have been able to save 13-year-old Christian Choate, whose severely malnourished body was unearthed in May 2011 from a shallow grave in a Gary mobile home park.
Safety of children
The legislative committee is charged with studying 14 topics, including best practices concerning child welfare, child mental health and delinquent children; the child abuse and neglect hotline; the long-range needs of DCS; crucial problems in DCS; and the availability and quality of services provided to families in need of services.
The committee is co-chaired by State Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, and State Rep. Cindy Noe, R-Indianapolis. Committee members include other state legislators, judges and children's advocates.
A number of region officials shared their priority lists of issues to be tackled by the legislative committee.
VanDenburgh, other state legislators and child welfare advocates also have questioned DCS' decision to centralize its child abuse and neglect hotline. They say the agency has screened out too many calls involving allegations of abuse or neglect, leaving children in dangerous situations.
"I think that we're dropping the ball somewhere," VanDenburgh said. "There are too many calls tossed aside and not taken seriously."
In a news release issued last month, DCS officials said the centralized hotline has created consistency and better quality control in handling such calls. They said Indiana's centralized child abuse and neglect hotline has became a model for other states.
Elena Dwyre, CEO of Campagna Academy in Schererville, said she hopes the legislative committee will ensure DCS' shift to community-based services, that is, providing services while the child remains at home or lives in a foster home, doesn't leave out children who need the more intensive services offered in a residential facility. Campagna Academy provides residential placement, as well as community-based services and therapeutic foster care programs for children.
"Children should not grow up in programs, should not be raised in programs," Dwyre said. "There is a place for residential care, however. My concern is all this talk about community-based services has blurred somewhat the need and value of residential care."
Residential care, as opposed to leaving children at home or placed in a foster home, involves placing children in a facility with a secure campus where children receive treatment and 24-hour care after being removed from their homes or foster homes.
DCS has drastically reduced the number of children it placed in residential facilities over the past several years, choosing instead to provide children services while living at home or in foster care. DCS officials told The Times children are better off in the least-restrictive, most family-like environments.
Mental health services for children
Barbara Layton, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Porter County, said she hopes the legislative committee will address the inability of many parents to secure appropriate mental health services for their children. Layton's organization advocates for roughly 25 region families who have children with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities.
A Times investigation published earlier this year found parents, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, child welfare advocates and other Indiana officials who say there is a multiagency failure to provide appropriate mental health services to the children who need it. Children who don't get needed services can end up in the juvenile delinquency system.
DCS Director James Payne said his agency sometimes will substantiate neglect against parents to help them obtain mental health services for their children, but it's a last option after all other efforts fail.
Layton believes more needs to be done.
"DCS doesn't feel they need to do anything if a child with a mental illness or developmental disability needs help," Layton said. "It needs to be addressed, so why not with the Department of Mental Health (and Addiction)?"
While the DCS-focused legislative committee is slated to address mental health needs of children, there also is a Commission on Mental Health and Addiction that is charged with studying the unmet health health needs of children in the juvenile justice system, and whether prosecuting attorneys should be allowed to file a petition alleging a child in need of services.
As of Wednesday, that committee had not scheduled its first meeting.