INDIANAPOLIS | A top Indiana Department of Child Services official told state legislators Wednesday that concerns voiced by many people regarding the agency have been "very legitimate."
DCS Chief of Staff John Ryan said the agency can improve on its increased turnover of family case managers, complaints regarding its centralized child abuse and neglect hotline and the number of child fatalities in Indiana.
“We have challenges,” he said. “We are not there yet. ... We still have a difficult road ahead of us because abuse and neglect still takes place."
More than 100 people attended the first DCS interim study committee meeting Wednesday at the Indiana Statehouse. The meeting lasted more than four hours and was dominated by DCS officials.
Eight DCS employees gave a combined three-hour, 155-slide presentation that included information on how the agency works, its structure, how it has changed and how it measures success.
DCS Director James Payne painted a bleak picture of child services prior to 2005, which is when DCS became the sole entity responsible for it. Prior to 2005, he said there was no training and very little support for caseworkers, no consistency from county to county and varying standards for how child abuse and neglect allegations were handled.
Ryan cited Indiana's improved rankings in a number of categories — including timeliness and permanency of reunifying families, stability of child placement and timeliness of adoption — as evidence of DCS' successes. He acknowledged room for improvement remains, particularly with the abuse and neglect hotline.
The hotline's call center, located in Indianapolis, has been sharply criticized by advocates and Democratic legislators who argue DCS has screened out too many calls involving allegations of abuse or neglect.
“The hotline is a bad idea,” said state Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis. “We believe the safety of children is being compromised.”
State Rep. Gail Riecken, D-Evansville, said she believes the hotline should be decentralized and shifted to county or regional centers.
On Wednesday, Ryan announced a number of improvements to hotline procedures. He said officials from local DCS offices will review all screened-out reports of abuse or neglect with an option to initiate an assessment of those cases.
And, in a pilot project in Lawrence County, law enforcement officers are able to contact the local DCS office directly if they need immediate assistance, rather than calling the hotline. That procedure may be expanded to other counties in the state.
The legislative committee's next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 5, will focus on the hotline, state officials said.