INDIANAPOLIS | At times emotional and angry, more than a dozen Hoosiers told a legislative panel Wednesday that Indiana's centralized child abuse hotline is ineffective, dangerous and fails protect the state's most vulnerable citizens.
"I believe that crimes against children are happening right under our noses; they're not being addressed," said Teresa Atchison, of Madison County, speaking to the General Assembly's committee studying the Department of Child Services.
In 2010, Indiana established a single, statewide telephone number to report child abuse to DCS, replacing more than 300 local numbers. The agency claims the centralized system, available 24 hours a day, ensures a consistent response, better-trained staff and has helped reduce child deaths by 57 percent since 2004.
But Amber Turientine, of Indianapolis, a former hotline supervisor, said management cliques have caused poor morale among hotline staffers, leaving employees afraid to take action on abuse claims and leading to high employee turnover.
"People were leaving sooner than we could get them trained," Turientine said.
Donna and Bob Baxter, of Schererville, said the hotline was useless to them after DCS took their granddaughter from their home in May and returned the child to the drug-addicted mother and her abusive boyfriend. As a newborn, the child exhibited symptoms of drug abuse, had a sexually transmitted disease and was malnourished, Donna Baxter said.
"How do you send a baby back to that when the parents are still drug users?" she asked. "No one at DCS will give us any answers."
State Rep. Gail Riecken, D-Evansville, said DCS needs to focus on acting in the best interest of the child, rather than always working toward family reunification.
"Especially when there are drugs involved, that doesn't make sense, and that's where we're seeing so much of this abuse," she said.
In addition, Riecken believes the hotline should be redeployed on a regional basis with local case workers answering calls to ensure local nuances aren't missed by a call center staffer based in Indianapolis.
The legislature's DCS study committee is set to meet three more times in the next two months reviewing agency operations ahead of reform proposals expected when the General Assembly convenes in January.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said the Baxters' grandchild tested positive for drugs. DCS did not test the child for drugs, Donna Baxter said, a doctor told her the child exhibited symptoms of drug withdrawal.