INDIANAPOLIS — For the sixth time in six years, outside experts have analyzed the Indiana Department of Child Services, identified its strengths and weaknesses, and recommended ways to improve the agency responsible for protecting more than 26,000 abused and neglected Hoosier children.
The 116-page report issued Monday by the Alabama-based Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group in many ways echoes its predecessors by finding that too many Indiana children are being removed from their homes; DCS staff are underpaid and feel trapped in a "culture of fear"; and the agency may be struggling to do too much.
This time, however, Gov. Eric Holcomb insisted that the white binders containing the $146,630 agency review won't just be tossed on a shelf and ignored.
Instead, the Republican committed to implementing all 20 recommendations, and proclaimed that the document will guide his administration in the years ahead as it works to rebuild an agency that its previous director suggested was endangering children's lives.
"These changes must be put into motion — and they will be," Holcomb said. "We have to take a different approach if we want to realize different results."
What's the plan?
The governor announced that he's hired former Boone County Prosecutor Todd Meyer, a Republican, as DCS associate director.
Meyer is tasked specifically with implementing the report recommendations in conjunction with DCS Director Terry Stigdon.
Holcomb also directed the Office of Management and Budget to allocate Stigdon $25 million from the state's nearly $2 billion budget reserve in order to provide the 4,084 DCS employees pay raises, as well as increased training and educational opportunities.
"We have to reinvest, we have to reinvigorate our child services staff to provide them with better support," Holcomb said.
Beyond that, Holcomb suggested it largely will be up to DCS itself, or related entities, such as the Commission on Improving the Status of Children in Indiana, led by Chief Justice Loretta Rush, to figure out how exactly to put the recommended changes into practice.
It likely won't be easy. Among the more controversial recommendations:
- Directing families with substance abuse issues to other agencies for treatment and assistance, rather than having DCS intervene to remove children from potentially dangerous homes containing a drug user.
- Allowing DCS 24 hours to respond to a crisis child protection assessment, instead of the current requirement of a one-hour response.
- Reducing court system involvement in child welfare interventions in favor of voluntary participation in DCS programs.
- Eliminating the DCS employees' "culture of fear" by imposing consequences for poor performance only in cases of fraud or gross negligence.
- Hiring more supervisors to oversee family case managers and increasing caseload limits in accordance with national standards.
- Redefining "neglect" and other key terms to limit DCS involvement in issues, such as child sexual abuse, that law enforcement or other agencies could handle instead.
The Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group did not estimate the cost to implement all of its recommendations. Several are likely to require General Assembly approval.
Holcomb, likewise, declined to project how much more Hoosier taxpayers might be asked to spend on DCS. This year the agency will consume $1.2 billion, up from $908 million in 2014.
"There's a lot of moving parts, there's a lot of implementation that has to occur, and as you improve in one area that can draw down costs in another area," Holcomb said. "It's synchronizing all of those actions that makes this one of the most challenging jobs on the face of the planet."
State Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, who attended the governor's announcement, said he was skeptical that the sixth DCS review and recommendations will fare any better than the five that preceded it.
"If they want to do something — if — I'm all for it," Delaney said. "There was a great focus on the employees, and I think that's very legitimate.
"But our governor and the head of this agency admitted that their employees have been in a long-term 'culture of fear,'" Delaney said. "Well, there have been three Republican administrations in a row. Where did that 'culture of fear' come from?"
Immediately after the report's release, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, announced that the Legislative Council, composed of House and Senate leaders, will meet July 2 to review the analysis and discuss next steps.
"Protecting Indiana’s most vulnerable children continues to be a top priority for the General Assembly, and it’s clear that more must be done to ensure child safety and better outcomes," Bosma said.
John Zody, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party, said in response: "Talk is cheap."
"When previous reforms never got past lip service, Hoosiers are right to doubt Holcomb’s credibility now," Zody said. "Holcomb should start by apologizing to families who lost children for failing to do his job to protect them."
The entire DCS report is available to read online at nwi.com.