INDIANAPOLIS — Lake County is among the five regions that leaders of an Alabama child welfare organization plan to visit in the next few months as part of their comprehensive assessment of Indiana's Department of Child Services.

The Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group said Thursday in its first monthly report that direct observation of casework in the field, along with confidential interviews of DCS employees and vendors, will help the group better understand the agency's structure, capacity and needs.

"We're just beginning this assessment. We began on Jan. 3 with our first visit to Indiana, and then we were back last week and this week, so we're in the very early stages," said Sue Steib, a consultant to the child welfare group.

She said interviews are underway with DCS central office employees, as well as child welfare advocacy groups, providers and other DCS stakeholders located in Marion County.

In the weeks ahead, the evaluators plan to fan out to the four corners of the state to directly observe frontline DCS employees in Lake, Allen, Vanderburgh and Clark counties as they work to aid abused and neglected Hoosier children.

The group also will review randomly selected case files to determine the effectiveness of DCS investigation practices, assessment, case planning and intervention strategies.

Steib already has found the DCS data system does not produce user-friendly activity reports for either agency management or its employees.

She also noted that Indiana has a significantly higher rate of abused children being removed from their homes by DCS, about 13 for every 1,000 children, compared to the national average of 5.5 per 1,000.

Altogether, 16,834 Indiana children were in out-of-home care last year, compared to 8,897 children in 2012, according to DCS records.

Steib said understanding the reasons for that growth is one of the things her organization hopes to explain by the time it issues a final report in mid-June.

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"Taking a child out of his or her family is a very consequential decision for children and for families," Steib said.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb hired the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group following the fiery December resignation of former Lake Superior Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura as DCS director.

The group can earn up to $146,630 for its work assessing the agency now led by Terry Stigdon, the former pediatric emergency care manager at Indianapolis' Riley Children's Health.

Stigdon said in her two weeks on the job she likewise has been digging into how DCS works, and is planning to visit employees in each of the agency's 18 regions by the middle of the year.

She has not read Bonaventura's resignation letter, which warns that Holcomb's management and spending decisions regarding DCS "all but ensure children will die."

Rather, Stigdon said she has found an agency that's filled with "hardworking people who have a passion for children," and proclaimed her arrival heralds "a new day."

House Democratic Leader Terry Goodin, D-Austin, said he wants the General Assembly to immediately return for a special session if the final DCS evaluation comes after the Legislature's March 14 adjournment, as appears likely, and finds that changes in state law are needed to improve the agency.

"The problems facing DCS are so extreme that I would not be surprised if we end up with a complete overhaul of the agency itself," Goodin said.

"If acting sooner helps save the life of one child, then I am ready to go into special session to make the changes that are needed."

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