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DCS statute irks prosecutors

Some say review teams usurp counties in child-death cases

In August, the Indiana Department of Child Services asked county agencies and other groups to provide names of people possibly interested in serving on 18 newly created regional child fatality review teams.

The regional teams – which will review all deaths of children that are sudden, unexpected, unexplained or found to have been the result of abuse or neglect – were created by a new state law that took effect July 1.

For Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards and some other prosecutors in northeast Indiana, the new plan is not generating much enthusiasm. Some see the new process as part of a growing state bureaucracy removing control from local elected officials.

Others see it just as a giant waste of 13 people’s time.

DCS officials believe the new law creates a formalized process for reviewing child deaths, especially in those counties where no such structure previously exists. Only three counties – Marion, Lake and Allen – had formal child fatality review teams previously. In other counties, the role of examining child deaths and prevention is often handled by the already-required Child Protection Teams, created by the legislature in 1997.

According to state statute, the multidisciplinary, 13-member “Community Child Protection Teams” were created for the purpose of reviewing cases alleging child abuse and neglect, as well as making recommendations to the Department of Child Services.

The groups are also to create reports regarding child abuse and neglect.

Who is doing what?

Steuben County Prosecutor Michael Hess received his letter about the new teams recently and said he’s withholding judgment until he sees how the team comes together.

“It’s a statute. We’ll do whatever is necessary. I’m going to wait and see … to find out whatever my position is on its usefulness,” he said.

DCS spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland said the old Child Protection Teams will remain in place, but there is little uniformity throughout the state as to how those groups operate.

“That’s been part of the problem,” she said. “It’s not consistent from county to county.”

The new regional teams were created as part of Senate Bill 286, sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators in both urban and rural districts.

Theresa M. Covington, with the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths in Washington, D.C., applauded the creation of the new teams.

“This is a very positive step in the right direction to increase the number of child death reviews occurring in (Indiana),” she said in an email. “(The law is) bringing (Indiana) closer to the national standard and the US Healthy People 2020 Objective that all sudden and unexpected deaths be reviewed.”

McFarland said DCS has found it hard to know who is doing what in reviewing child deaths. DCS officials reached out to the state’s county prosecutors when bringing the proposal before the legislature and it was suggested that a representative from the prosecutor’s office within the region be included on the team, she said.

And the counties themselves recommend who will be on the teams, she said.

“It’s not DCS making the recommendations,” she said.

‘Overburdened’

But many area prosecutors don’t want one county prosecutor representing all nine of them.

The current Allen County child protection team hums with efficiency, Richards said. As part of its duties, it looked at the frequency of child deaths to determine whether there were specific issues that needed to be addressed through education or other methods, she said.

The thought of losing that to a regional committee does not make her happy, nor does the idea of picking one prosecutor from the region’s nine counties to sit on the panel, which is what is required by the new law.

“Instead of being allowed to review our own cases, we now have to pick one of us, already overburdened, to review everybody else’s deaths,” she said.

Richards wonders how effective the regional teams, made up of representatives of different communities, will be in addressing issues that are common to smaller localities.

For example, Allen County could have different issues officials feel they need to address than a situation in Adams County.

Some of the existing child protection teams put out community education efforts in an attempt to prevent additional deaths or injuries if they notice a particular problem cropping up, officials said.

“I see that it is going to be much more difficult to get public information out,” Richards said. “I think people should be reviewing what happens in their own communities.”

Richards said she heard nothing from state officials or representatives until the law took effect. A few weeks ago, she received the letter from DCS asking her to get together with prosecutors from Adams, Wells, Huntington, Whitley, Steuben, Noble, LaGrange and DeKalb to pick a representative.

Richards believes the program is an effort by DCS to centralize control at the state level.

‘I’m not going’

When DCS was asked about prosecutors’ concerns about the regional teams, McFarland suggested contacting state legislators who had a hand in the bill.

Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, co-sponsored the bill containing the regional fatality review team provision but shared some of the same concerns voiced by northeast Indiana prosecutors.

“In our county, in Madison County, we’ve had a child fatality review team,” he said. “It’s worked pretty well.”

The group reviewed not just child fatalities but also domestic violence cases and was composed of different members of the criminal justice system. He said there has been a comfort level within the group because of dealing with only Madison County cases.

Lanane said he believes he raised some of these issues when the bill was discussed in committee. He urged prosecutors and others who might have concerns about the provision to contact their representatives and talk to them about it.

“We’re reviewing the whole DCS system, especially as it comes to child protection,” he said. “We can’t be afraid to look at the way the system works or is failing to work. The whole idea of a regional (or) top-down approach, maybe it’s good, maybe it’s not so good.”

DeKalb County Prosecutor ClaraMary Winebrenner agrees, and she said she has no plans to participate. According to Winebrenner, there are three ways to evaluate the death of a child – for prosecution; to legally step in and help a child in need of services; or for prevention of a particular issue.

“We don’t make prosecution decisions by committee,” she said. “By collaboration, yes, but committee? No. Child fatality meetings are similar to Monday morning quarterbacking.”

DCS can do anything it wants, Winebrenner said.

“I’m not going,” she said, adding there is no built-in punishment in the law to get her to cooperate.

“If you want to talk about state waste, look at whose resources are going to be wasted,” Winebrenner said. “There better be a purpose, because every minute I’m not spending at my desk is time I’m not spending doing my job.”

Winebrenner said she already has protocols in place in her county to handle child abuse and child deaths and is concerned that other counties’, or the state’s protocols, may be different.

“They’re not allowed to override mine,” she said.

While part of the new program may be designed for uniformity in how situations are handled, Winebrenner said such initiatives are often good at fixing problems in some locales but can create problems in others.

Huntington County Prosecutor Amy Richison had much the same reaction as Winebrenner and Richards.

“It’s just adding more hoops to jump through. It’s adding more red tape,” she said.

Richison said the new teams take away her county’s ability to determine for itself what are appropriate measures of prevention, given its own set of resources.

“It’s one of those things where if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” she said. “What problem was present at the local level that you thought you needed to fix by creating regional review?”

rgreen@jg.net

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