Advocate: DCS bureau a 'toothless tiger'

State rep., group, concerned about lack of funding, power
2010-04-02T00:05:00Z Advocate: DCS bureau a 'toothless tiger'By Marisa Kwiatkowski - marisa.kwiatkowski@nwi.com, (219) 662-5333 nwitimes.com

INDIANAPOLIS | How can one person with a small budget reinspire confidence in the Department of Child Services?

That is a question on the minds of State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, and at least one child welfare advocate.

The Indiana Legislature created the DCS Ombudsman Bureau last year, citing the need for an independent group to review Department of Child Services' actions and decisions.

Brown sponsored the original bill, but said the legislation creating the ombudsman bureau was "tremendously watered-down" before it won approval. He said he is concerned the bureau's success will be hampered by limited funding and a lack of enforcement power.

"I don't think there's ever too much that we can do to protect children, especially those who are in the system," Brown said. "There needs to be someone who is designated to look out for the quality of life for children."

About 29.5 percent of the state's children who died because of abuse or neglect lived in families that had prior contact with DCS, a Times analysis of DCS statistics from 2002 to 2008 shows.

But DCS spokeswoman Ann Houseworth said prior history does not necessarily involve the child who died. It could relate to anyone living in the home, such as an aunt or family friend, she added.

Houseworth said DCS supported the legislation creating an ombudsman bureau, even though the agency already follows federal regulations and improves procedures on its own.

"We will certainly accept suggestions for changes to policy and procedure that would better protect Indiana's children," Houseworth said.

Dawn Robertson, assistant director of HonkforKids, said her organization has documented 10,000 complaints against DCS in the last six years. HonkforKids is an Indiana-based advocacy group that seeks to educate parents, lobby for change and stop what its members believe are abuses of power by DCS.

Robertson called the ombudsman bureau a "toothless tiger" and said it is designed for failure. One person cannot do the job of five people, she said.

DCS Ombudsman Susan Hoppe is an investigative staff of one -- although she has an administrative assistant. Other ombudsman bureaus, like those in Michigan and Washington, have more employees.

"I don't know what's in her heart," Robertson said. "But even if she was willing to do what needs to be done, it's impossible for her to get it done."

Hoppe, who started in mid-December, said she has already received about 50 complaints about DCS. She said some of those complaints have been resolved and others are still being reviewed.

"If (the number of complaints picks up), I won't be able to handle much more," she said.

Hoppe's workload is already higher than that of the DCS caseworkers themselves, who are limited by Indiana law to either 12 current assessments or 17 ongoing cases. Indiana law does not limit Hoppe's caseload.

Nor does the law spell out the amount of time in which Hoppe should respond to a complaint. Caseworkers are required to complete their investigations within 30 days.

And complaints are only one aspect of Hoppe's job duties.

She may also review policies and procedures, evaluate the effectiveness of the child protection system and increase public awareness of her office -- a daunting to-do list for one person.

"I'm just going to do the best I can with what I have," Hoppe said. "I think prioritizing the kinds of cases I review will be significant."

Even if she does find fault in a DCS action or decision, there is no guarantee anything will change. DCS is required to respond to Hoppe's written report, but does not have to comply with her suggestions.

Houseworth said the agency will be responsive to Hoppe's ideas.

"I'm going to start out with good faith here and assume the department will be responsive," Hoppe said. "One of my goals to increase the public's confidence in DCS. I think this office is in a position to do that."

When to file a complaint

A complaint can be filed with the Ombudsman Bureau if someone has concerns about the actions of the Department of Child Services relating to a particular child after attempting to resolve the issue with agency staff. The identity of the person filing the complaint will not be released without written consent, except as necessary to investigate and resolve the complaint.

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