INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Eric Holcomb is disputing allegations by the outgoing head of the Department of Child Services who claims the governor's management and spending policies are endangering the lives of Indiana's most at-risk children.
In her resignation letter, obtained by The Times, DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura said her ongoing efforts since 2013 to improve the agency that cares for abused and neglected Hoosier children are being thwarted in the midst of an opioid abuse crisis that requires more resources, not fewer.
"I choose to resign rather than be complicit in decreasing the safety, permanency and well-being of children who have nowhere else to turn," said Bonaventura, a former Lake County juvenile court judge.
Bonaventura claims that since Holcomb took office in January she's been relegated to "DCS director in name only," with the Republican governor's hand-picked DCS chief of staff, Eric Miller, running the agency, and Holcomb's budget officials controlling its spending.
"The current chief of staff has engineered the hiring of his choices, driven out career professionals, engaged in bullying subordinates, created a hostile work environment, exposed the agency to lawsuits, overridden my decisions, been brazenly insubordinate and made cost-cutting decisions without my knowledge or regard for the consequences," she said.
Holcomb spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson disagreed with that description of Miller, who previously was chief of staff for the man currently serving as U.S. surgeon general, and managed budgets at the state health agency, Department of Correction and the governor's office.
"Eric Miller has significant experience and was a highly successful chief of staff at the Indiana State Department of Health for Dr. Jerome Adams — and his expertise has been put to use to help DCS administer services more effectively," Wilson said.
Bonaventura said from her perspective, Miller's primary administrative task, as directed by Holcomb's Office of Management and Budget and the State Budget Agency, has been "slashing our budget in ways that all but ensure children will die."
In a written statement, the governor strongly disagreed with that characterization of DCS funding.
He said the agency is receiving $200 million more in the 2018 and 2019 budget years than its base 2017 appropriation. That's on top of the $137 million in extra funds given to DCS in June, he added.
"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."
The governor did not address Bonaventura's additional claim that DCS relationships with foster parents, child placement agencies and treatment facilities are breaking down.
She said the state's computer system for tracking and distributing child support payments also is on the verge of collapse.
Bonaventura said Holcomb's efforts to reduce or cap the hiring of family case managers and child welfare attorneys when DCS is being called on to serve more children than ever due to growth in parental drug abuse is entirely wrongheaded.
"Only once society has found a solution to opioid abuse and its consequences would it be appropriate to even think about cutting funding to child welfare," she said.
"Remember, today's children are tomorrow's parents. What we do now will shape an entire generation."
Holcomb said he shares Bonaventura's commitment to keeping Hoosier kids safe, and "that's why the state continues to make investments in the agency."
House Democratic Leader Terry Goodin, D-Austin, said Bonaventura's warning that Holcomb's policies "all but ensure children will die" should give any reasonable person pause.
"The circumstances surrounding this resignation raise some highly disturbing questions about the commitment this administration is showing toward protecting those children who are most at risk," Goodin said.
"If it's a choice between saving dollars or saving lives, there should be no debate here."
Bonaventura's resignation is effective Dec. 27. Holcomb said he's already begun searching for a new DCS director.