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INDIANAPOLIS | The Department of Child Services immediately will hire 113 new family case managers, on top of the 100 added earlier this year, to cope with an eye-popping 26 percent increase in Indiana child abuse and neglect reports.

DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura, who previously served three decades as a Lake Superior Court judge, said her agency currently is investigating and overseeing 18,621 Hoosier children in need of services, up from 14,763 last year.

She said the unexpected caseload boost has put DCS out of compliance with an Indiana law that limits the 2,063 existing case managers to a maximum of 17 ongoing cases or 12 initial assessments.

According to the agency's annual report set to be presented Friday to the State Budget Committee, Lake County needs 28 new case managers to be in compliance and Porter County is two short. LaPorte, Newton and Jasper counties are operating with the statutorily-required staff.

The estimated cost of the 113 new hires is $7.2 million a year, which Bonaventura said Republican Gov. Mike Pence did not hesitate to approve spending. The Republican-controlled Legislature has given Pence wide latitude to shift appropriations as he deems necessary.

"(He said) absolutely, if this is what we need to do to protect children, then that's what the people of the state of Indiana would want us to do," Bonaventura said.

DCS family case managers earn $16.23 per hour at hiring and their pay grows to $17.20 per hour after completing a mandatory three-month training program. The average hourly wage in Northwest Indiana is $22.71, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Bonaventura admitted family case managers have very difficult jobs, and the agency loses about 20 percent of them each year, but she said they also play a very needed in role in guarding the state's most vulnerable children.

"They're the unsung heroes because they are the ones that go into the homes every day, homes that some of us would never ever dream about going into or (believe) that even exist, protecting children," Bonaventura said. "They are warriors."

Pence attributed the growth in DCS cases to parents with substance abuse problems, particularly heroin, which he described as a growing national issue and hinted that the state is preparing to take on in a multi-agency way in the near future.

"Today is about confronting the results of that crisis in the state of Indiana and ensuring that our kids are protected," Pence said.

The DCS hiring announcement comes one month after the Indiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against the state on behalf of DCS workers who claim their caseloads far exceed the maximum allowed by law.

"We will have to evaluate the effect of these additional positions to determine if the agency is finally able to meet its statutory mandate," said Ken Falk, ACLU legal director.

Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said he is pleased the Pence administration is hiring badly-needed DCS staff, but said it still only will bring the state to the minimum required and Hoosier children deserve more than a minimum effort.

"Protecting neglected and abused children is of the highest priority," Lanane said. "We cannot continue to pad the surplus while leaving our most vulnerable Hoosiers behind."

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Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.