Members of a legislative study committee charged with examining Indiana’s embattled Department of Child Services have heard hours of testimony and read reams of written comments. Now, they must begin to right the troubled agency.
Democratic committee members released their own recommendations last week. When the full panel meets Thursday, their ideas are a good starting point in efforts to restore trust in DCS in the wake of damaging budget cuts, administrative scandal and loss of county-level control.
Rep. Gail Riecken, D-Evansville, said the priority is returning operation of the child abuse hotline from a statewide call center to local child protection workers and law enforcement. The recommendation is contrary to a proposal from the committee co-chairs, Republican Sen. Travis Holdman and Rep. Cindy Noe, who earlier proposed a hybrid operation for the hotline, which was criticized by local judges and others even before it was implemented. Since it was rolled out, county officials across the state have charged that calls are being screened out and that delays have endangered children.
I’ve always been committed to a county-based hotline, but it really did surprise me how people across the state agree, Riecken said in an interview. When the hybrid was recommended, the response was not positive. Local law enforcement officials don’t see it that way."
The set of nine areas addressed also include emphasizing staff training and education, with a zero tolerance environment for fear and intimidation in the workplace.
Former DCS Director James Payne resigned in September after the Indianapolis Star reported he had intervened in a case involving his own grandchildren. Some child advocates had complained that DCS employees under Payne’s leadership were pressured not to reveal problems and to strictly follow state protocol, regardless of its effect on children at risk.
The Democratic lawmakers also recommended reestablishment of the Indiana child fatality review team under the Indiana Department of Health and that standards be established to encourage use of local providers. The recommendations specifically cite cuts in Healthy Families spending, a key tool in child abuse prevention. An external audit of DCS also is recommended, along with establishment of target goals to eliminate interest owed on delayed payments to providers, now totaling more than $620,000, according to the legislators.
Riecken said the recommendations were shaped by the hours of testimony committee members heard, as well as much written testimony and an informal survey of the hotline operations by Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford. A set of four guiding principals is the basis for the proposal, submitted by Riecken, Rep. Vanessa Summers of Indianapolis, Sen. Tim Lanane of Anderson and Sen. John Broden of South Bend.
The full committee meets Thursday. Allen Superior Court Judge Charles Pratt also serves on the panel.