MARTINSVILLE | A circuit court judge slammed the Indiana Department of Child Services on Tuesday, accusing it of failing to help children with mental illnesses.
Morgan Circuit Court Judge Matthew Hanson said DCS has "unchecked" power when it comes to determining whether a child needs court-ordered services beyond the care a parent can provide.
But, he said, the agency isn't using that power effectively.
"It would seem DCS is simply waiting around until the child commits such egregious or dangerous acts that the (juvenile delinquency) system has no choice but to file charges against a child with a mental disease/defect, and then the DCS can simply ignore any pleas thereafter to aid such a child," he wrote in his ruling Tuesday.
DCS officials flatly denied Hanson's accusation. Spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland said the state agency's primary mission is to protect children from abuse and neglect, and providing services is a key piece of that.
A Times investigation published earlier this month found families throughout the state struggling to find services for children with severe mental illnesses or disabilities. When all other efforts fail, those families are told to let DCS file a petition for child in need of services 1, known as CHINS 1. Doing so results in parents claiming they neglected their children.
Parents and mental health officials complain there is a multi-agency failure to provide more intensive services, but Hanson's ruling solely placed the blame on DCS.
Hanson said he has "serious questions" about whether DCS is doing what it is supposed to for children with mental illnesses. His ruling stemmed from DCS' actions regarding a Morgan County child who first entered the court system as a juvenile delinquent.
Morgan County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Robert Cline said it was "obvious" the child's crime was the result of a mental illness. He said it was one of three such juvenile delinquency cases filed this year in which parents desperately wanted help for their children but weren't receiving it.
Multiple people — including the child's juvenile probation officer and a prosecutor — had called DCS' abuse and neglect hot line about the child, but nothing was done, Cline said.
Frustrated, Cline filed a CHINS petition in mid-April to secure services for that child. Typically, DCS is the only agency to file such petitions.
"I'm not a crusader kind of guy, but when you're failing children, that's pretty much got to be your No. 1 priority," Cline said.
DCS filed a motion to dismiss the CHINS case brought by Cline, arguing DCS has sole authority to file such petitions. The agency said Tuesday the child could have received the same services through Morgan County's probation system.
"We are very concerned that the prosecutor chose to tie up a child's interest with an unnecessary legal wrangling in which he never had legal authority to introduce in the first place," McFarland said in a written statement to The Times.
Cline said the child would have to plead guilty to a crime to receive services through the probation department. He also said probation can't order the parents of a juvenile delinquent to do anything, but the judge involved in a CHINS case could.
Judge Hanson's ruling on Tuesday reluctantly agreed that Cline didn't have the power to file a CHINS case, but he criticized the agency's failure to act.
"There were seven calls to DCS containing similar — and even the exact same — information that the prosecutor relied upon (to file his CHINS petition), and yet not until this action arose and was to be heard in a public forum did DCS take steps to file any type of CHINS action," Hanson wrote.
DCS officials said confidentiality statutes prohibit them from commenting specifically on the Morgan County child's case. The state agency filed its own CHINS petition for the child 12 days after Cline filed, court records show.
The judge blamed the Indiana Legislature for taking out of state law county prosecutors' ability to file CHINS cases.
"Because the Legislature removed the prosecutor language, they have essentially left all decisions to file or not to file in the hands of the DCS with no option of being heard from anyone else," Hanson wrote.
Hanson said Morgan County can't be the only county facing this dilemma with children's mental health problems.
"The issue presented here in this case cannot simply be left to die as it is likely one that is problematic throughout the state of Indiana in regards to how DCS is refusing to handle mental health/disease cases as they should be," he wrote.
Cline said he sent Hanson's ruling to the Indiana attorney general's office to help him determine if he should appeal. He also said he plans to contact his state senators and representatives about changing the law so someone has oversight over DCS.
The Legislature already has created a study commission to look at under-served youth with mental health problems.
"There has to be somebody watching the watcher," Cline said. "It doesn't have to be a prosecutor."