The most anticipated of legislative study committee meetings this year might be the ones charged with reviewing Indiana’s child protection agency, which has been the target of criticism for budget decisions and changes made in reporting abuse.
State Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, and former Wells County welfare director, is co-chairman of the Department of Child Services Interim Study Committee. He promises a full airing of public comments, acknowledging that more local responsibility might be part of the solution in addressing complaints.
Gov. Mitch Daniels established DCS by executive order in early 2005, in what appeared to be a wise move to separate child protection services from the massive Family and Social Services Administration. Initially, the agency’s performance won raves.
But DCS soon came under fire. Foster and adoptive parents sued to block cuts in subsidies that help provide for the children, as did the agencies that serve children in residential care. Child advocates began questioning DCS’ push to keep more children at home, suggesting it was aimed more at cutting spending than helping children. Indeed, the agency reverted $104 million to the state last year.
DCS’ centralized abuse and neglect hotline has come under especially heavy criticism, with charges that operators screen out reports that should be investigated. In a heartbreaking recording obtained by the South Bend Tribune, a caller reports children are being beaten in a South Bend home, pleading with the call center worker to send help immediately.
It was five days before DCS sent someone to investigate. Less than six months later, 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis was beaten to death at the same home. His father, Terry Sturgis, was convicted of murder in May.
Holdman said last week he has heard the complaints and wants to make a visit to the call center operation available to committee members. Holdman said he was open to having the committee hear the recording from the Sturgis case.
“People will have an opportunity to voice their comments, whether it’s about the residential care per-diem, or foster homes and the foster care program,” he said. “For everything DCS touches, we’ll be all ears. I want to assure people, I’m doing this with a very open mind. I understand what Gov. Daniels has attempted to do, and I know (DCS executive director James) Payne fairly well, but at the same time – particularly if people have some solutions – we are certainly going to listen.”
The first of what Holdman expects will be five or six meetings is set for Aug. 22. Rep. Gail Riecken, D-Evansville, said last week she believes the administration and GOP legislative leaders might be trying to make changes before the study committee meets.
“I heard just this week of a pilot program being discussed to operate a hotline at county level, in another county,” she said in an email. “I also heard from someone else that a local DCS office is being encouraged to set up a review process of all screen-outs in a new procedure.”
Riecken said both ideas addressed concerns she has and seem to be in line with what should be done, but said she still believes it would be helpful to have a public discussion.
“This isn’t an issue where just legislators are concerned; Hoosiers across the state are speaking out and want action now,” she said.
- The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Aug. 5