2013 Indiana General Assembly

Plans to improve state child services agency set to become law

2013-04-29T19:10:00Z 2013-04-29T20:54:23Z Plans to improve state child services agency set to become lawBy Dan Carden dan.carden@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078 nwitimes.com

INDIANAPOLIS | State lawmakers have given the Department of Child Services all the new tools they believe the agency needs to protect Hoosier children from abuse and neglect.

Four measures approved prior to the General Assembly adjourning on Saturday, which are now awaiting the governor's signature, write into law all the recommendations made by the Legislature's 2012 DCS study committee.

Senate Bill 125 creates three organizations to oversee and assist DCS, including child fatality review teams in every county and a statewide team to analyze suspicious child deaths and develop strategies to prevent serious child injuries and deaths.

The Child Services Oversight Committee, led by four legislators, will meet at least quarterly to scrutinize the work of DCS and make recommendations to improve delivery of DCS services.

Finally, the Commission on Improving the Status of Children in Indiana will be tasked with studying issues relating to vulnerable youths, including those under the care of DCS or in juvenile detention. The commission is expected to work across state agencies to develop legislation that ensures the needs of vulnerable children are not ignored.

Senate Bill 164 empowers local prosecutors to intervene on behalf of an abused or mentally ill child by filing a Child In Need of Services petition in court, without going through DCS or charging the child with a crime.

Prosecutors lost that power in a 2008 rewrite of DCS statutes, but the study committee recommended reviving the authority as a fail-safe in case DCS cannot or refuses to act on behalf of a child needing help.

Senate Bill 202 requires parties in guardianship, visitation or child custody cases to report to the judge whether the parent or child has been involved in a substantiated case of child abuse, child neglect or a child in need of services.

Currently, judges cannot access DCS records, in most circumstances, due to privacy laws.

Finally, House Bill 1001, the 2014-15 state budget, provides DCS with $35 million in additional funds to hire more caseworkers and make improvements to the state's centralized child abuse hotline.

Republican Gov. Mike Pence said Monday the extra funding "will improve the safety and well-being of our children ... and we're grateful for it."

The work of DCS has been widely criticized as an increasing number of Hoosier children — 40 in 2011 — have died due to abuse or neglect.

Earlier this year, Pence appointed as DCS director Mary Beth Bonaventura, a former Lake County juvenile court judge, to turn around the beleaguered state agency.

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