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The Journal Gazette

  • Stigdon

Sunday, May 19, 2019 1:00 am

Child Services making progress

Policy changes, legislation reduce caseload, turnover

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

Gains made at DCS

Here is how Indiana Department of Child Services' key metrics have improved for children in need of services:

Date Cases
February 2019 19,277
February 2018 22,860
February 2017 23,282
February 2016 20,267

Children in foster care:

Date Children
February 2019 14,665
February 2018 16,709
February 2017 16,635
February 2016 14,405

Source: DCS

INDIANAPOLIS – After more than a year of intense focus, the Indiana Department of Child Services appears to have turned a corner.

The number of cases of abused or neglected children is down more than 3,500.

Caseworker loads have decreased.

The number of children in foster care dropped 12%.

Staff turnover is down.

It's these metrics that led lawmakers to provide less funding than initially requested in the new state budget starting July 1. The department will receive $256 million instead of $286 million.

“I know that our legislators worked very hard trying to figure out the best use of all the dollars,” DCS Director Terry Stigdon said. “At this point, I am grateful because we are moving in the right direction. We're going to keep working hard. I don't have a concern, because they were clear about their support for children.”

It's a big turnaround for an agency that was spiraling in December 2017. Its director had just resigned, and a leaked copy of her resignation letter spelled out serious problems with the agency.

“I feel I am unable to protect children because of the position taken by your staff to cut funding and services to children in the midst of the opioid crisis,” Mary Beth Bonaventura wrote. “I choose to resign, rather than be complicit in decreasing the safety, permanency and well-being of children who have nowhere else to turn.”

That led to a new director, an outside review, millions more in funding and a change in philosophy.

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, said previously the default strategy seemed to be removing children from their home – partly to avoid negative press if a child later died. But he said that led to the system being overwhelmed.

“Now I think they are instituting criteria and making evidence-based decisions,” Steuerwald said.

Stigdon, who joined the agency in January 2018, agreed, saying there isn't an ideal number of cases.

“It's not about the number. It's about 'are they the right kids in care?' And not basing it on opinion or a gut feeling. What is the evidence showing?” she said.

Changing the approach resulted in a decline in the number of children removed from their home and placed in foster care. The agency also made a concerted effort to focus on cases that have lingered too long with children not having a permanent home.

Stigdon said she and senior staffers focused first on workforce – starting with filling vacancies and giving pay raises to caseworkers. Turnover has dropped 20%, which allows a better work/life balance for employees.

“You can hire and hire and hire, but you have to stop the bleeding,” she said.

The department is working on a leadership program and making sure employees know they can share concerns with supervisors.

Lawmakers also helped make some changes this year. For instance, state law previously required a complete investigation into abuse or neglect claims within 30 days. But that wasn't enough time, and workers were regularly missing the deadline.

So lawmakers increased that to 45 days.

“I want them to do it right rather than be rushed,” said Steuerwald, who authored the bill.

Another provision in House Bill 1006 limits the caseloads of family case managers. Instead of the 17-child limit, managers will have no more than 12 families receiving in-home services or 13 children in out-of-home placement.

According to DCS, caseloads have been falling. In January 2018, the agency was only 77% compliant with the limits statewide, and now that is up to 97%.

Lawmakers also stripped an adoption subsidy out of the budget at the last minute. Foster parents get a per diem amount but lose that if they adopt the child.

“Adoptive families across the state have reached out to my office underscoring the immediate need for substantial support for the special-needs children they adopt,” said Sen. David Niezbodski, D-South Bend.

“This budget does not do justice for our most vulnerable children, and I will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that the legislature plays a larger role in the protection of these Hoosiers.”

nkelly@jg.net