The dirty little secret behind Indianas budget surplus is exactly how it came to be. Not the bounty of a booming economy but the result of nicks, cuts and downright slashing of programs critical to the safety of vulnerable Hoosiers and to the economic future of all its residents.
In education, mental health, environmental regulation, social services and more, millions of dollars have been struck from the budget and returned to the states coffers.
Nowhere have the cuts been as deep and as dangerous as in the Department of Child Services, where almost $104 million allocated by the Indiana General Assembly was returned unspent in the past fiscal year. The current biennial budget slashed an additional 15 percent from spending on child protection.
The results? Programs intended to prevent and treat child abuse and neglect eliminated. Fewer kids receiving services. And, tragically, some children dying.
Recent investigations by the Indianapolis Star and the South Bend Tribune focused on egregious cases of failed oversight. The Star found that DCS received an astonishing 19 reports of abuse and neglect before 12-year-old Devin Parsons was beaten to death last June and his mother and her boyfriend arrested on murder charges.
In South Bend, the Tribune examined the November death of Tramelle Sturgis. His father allegedly used duct tape to tie up the 10-year-old and beat him with a club and a belt. Tramelle and his two brothers also were burned with an iron and a hot screwdriver before Tramelle collapsed and died. Six months earlier, someone had reported to DCS that children in the house were being beaten regularly with 2-by-4s and that one of the children might have been bleeding internally.
In all, six children died last year after warnings about their care were raised to DCS. The agency charged with ensuring their safety determined the case didnt merit an investigation, investigated and closed the case with no action, or was still investigating. In each case, the children were left at home.
DCS did not respond to phone calls and email requests for comment.
Northeast Indiana has been spared the tragic example of a child killed after a report of abuse or neglect. But the region hasnt been spared the effects of the controversial policy now driving the child protection agency and a statewide neglect and abuse hotline that some claim is screening out cases that should be investigated.
DCS Director James Payne pushed for a centralized reporting system because, he argued, county-level reporting provided 92 different ways to screen out children. Consistency and efficiency were the goals.
But since the programs implementation began in early 2010, concerns are growing that cases that previously would have resulted in an investigation are no longer prompting state intervention or that the intervention is inadequate.
Judge Charles F. Pratt of Allen Superior Courts Family Relations Division, who was among the many child protection officials who questioned the hotline from its inception, points to one obvious flaw. When a young person comes to the attention of the juvenile system because of misbehavior likely related to abuse or neglect, court personnel cant order an investigation.
Even (Allen Superior Court Judge) Steve Sims, as a sitting judge – after having a masters degree probation officer say this kid has CHINS (Children in Need of Services) problems, not delinquency – he cant call the local office and say start an investigation, Pratt said. Hes got to call the hotline, and then the hotline can screen them out.
Contrast that with previous practice: Judges could simply pick up the phone, call local DCS officials and they would go out to investigate.
Sometimes it takes more than a screener, the judge said. You really need to have the investigation.
For child-safety advocates, the very principle on which DCS is operating is troublesome. Safely Home-Families First is based on the philosophy that children should be kept at home whenever possible, given that placement in a foster home or a residential center could be more disruptive.
I dont philosophically disagree with keeping kids home, Pratt said, if we can keep children home safely and make sure trauma is not there, that they are safe and that adequate services are invested, I dont have any problem with that. But there seems to be this default position – this greater weight toward keeping kids at home.
Pratt said there has been an increase in cases in which guardian representatives and Court Appointed Special Advocates representing children have been involved and reported problems that prompted court-ordered removals.
One came from (reporting by) in-home, homebound services, the judge said. They found the home so unlivable and so destructive and endangering that they came to court and insisted that the children be removed, and (DCS) opposed that, because of the whole Safely Home principle.
Pratt said keeping a child in the home avoids federal reporting requirements, but there are long-term potential harms to which these kids can be exposed, he said. The devil is always in trying to get that balance. Thats why its so important to have court hearings – to have Guardian Ad Litems and CASAs and parents represented by counsel. That sort of messy, living-room activity is important to discern and to fetter that out.
Guardian Ad Litems are attorneys who represent a childs interest in the courts, while Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers are appointed by judges to watch over and serve as advocates for abused and neglected children throughout the legal process.
Another effect is indisputable: Keeping children at home is cheaper than placing them in foster care or in a residential program in which they and their family members will receive treatment and counseling.
Locally, one measure of how the Safely Home policy is playing out is in the number of children served by area providers. Residential care has been the foundation for the childrens home operated on Lake Avenue for 128 years, but Crossroad Child & Family Services Inc. has had to restructure its services over the past five years as its residential placements have fallen by half. Randall Rider, Crossroad president and CEO, said he knows the approximately 35 children there today need to be in residential care.
I also know the 70 children who were here five years ago needed to be here, he said. I worry about those kids who arent here today.
Rider acknowledged that placing a child in a residential center is a dramatic intervention, but said he believes there always will be children for whom placement is needed.
Like Pratt, he believes there is merit in the Safely Home policy, but noted it has limits.
I believe children need to have the right level of intervention at the right time, he said. Theres going to be a cost to society for those who dont receive services.
Offering treatment to children facing complex behavioral issues requires a highly trained and experienced staff of therapists, clinical social workers and mental health counselors. To maintain its services, Crossroad has had to reduce staff, freeze salaries for four years and add more services supported by private-pay, insurance and Medicaid.
At Gateway Woods, a residential facility near Leo-Cedarville, Executive Director Jeff Schumacher said that client numbers have remained stable only because some other programs in the state have closed down and because he has supplemented declining state funds with private donations.
But he said hes aware of the declining number of children referred to agencies by DCS and points to the question of how many cases might be screened out in Indianapolis.
I have seen some families that have been screened out by DCS who wouldnt have been screened out at the local level.
Cathleen Graham is executive director of IARCCA, the umbrella organization representing Crossroad, Gateway Woods and other residential services, home-care and foster care providers. Her agency sued DCS in 2010 over the rates it set for foster-parent care. A settlement was reached with the state, but IARCCA has had to reopen the litigation because it believes DCS has violated the agreement.
Graham, who has worked in child protection since 1977, said her primary concern is that children are not getting the services they need, beginning with cases screened out at the hotline and continuing with the effects from cuts in programs that prevent abuse and neglect, including Healthy Families and foster care.
She also questioned the effect of centralizing decision-making at DCS.
I think it is the local relationships between police, school corporations, providers – its those groups working together with child protection and the juvenile courts that make the difference, she said. To pull everything to the central office, you lose the ability for those relationships to work.
Indiana House Democrats are pushing for an audit of DCS operations, including a study of the abuse and neglect hotline. They attempted to amend the proposals into existing legislation but were blocked in the GOP-controlled Family, Children and Human Affairs Committee.
We believe that we should not leave this session before significant changes are made to improve this system and protect children, said Rep. Gail Riecken, D-Evansville.
Early efforts by Gov. Mitch Daniels administration to improve long-standing problems in child protection looked promising, beginning with separating it from the cumbersome and bureaucratic Family and Social Services Administration. Somewhere along the way, however, an emphasis on saving money overtook the commitment to protecting children. Its past time to reorder priorities.