“There's no one who cares more about Hoosier children than I do,” Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said of concerns regarding the Department of Child Services in his annual State of the State address Tuesday. He pledged to do “whatever is necessary to ensure the success of our agency and its mission.”
But if the governor cares so much, he might have given the issue more than a few sentences near the end of his speech – barely more attention than he gave the effort to name the Say's Firefly the official state insect.
Overwork and underfunding have been issues at Child Services since the Mitch Daniels administration. Public outrage led Gov. Mike Pence to increase the department's funding and appoint aggressive child advocate Mary Beth Bonaventura, a judge with Lake County Superior Court's juvenile division, as director in 2013. Under her leadership, there was progress. But workers continued to complain of excessive caseloads. And the challenge of protecting Indiana's abused and neglected children has been exacerbated by the state's drug epidemic. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of Children in Need of Services cases nearly doubled.
Last month, a clearly frustrated Bonaventura announced her resignation and charged that rather than trying to keep up with the burgeoning crisis, the state administration has been intent on cutting the department's budget. In a searing public letter to the governor, she warned “lives will be lost and families ruined” if the administration doesn't give the department stronger support.
Neither Holcomb nor Republican lawmakers seem to want to tackle the issue in the current short session. Holcomb has commissioned a study and appointed a new director, but his refusal to directly address Bonaventura's concerns in his speech Tuesday night sent a clear message that Child Services' problems could wait.
The governor devoted a bit more time to the ongoing struggle to reduce Indiana's tragically high infant mortality rate. As he noted, it's now the highest in the Midwest.
Holcomb said he wants to bring that rate down to the lowest in the region by 2024. He pledged to implement the commendable Levels of Care plans to ensure proper hospital care for high-risk babies and outlined more support for the fight against opioids, which contributes to the infant-mortality crisis as well.
But beyond that, there were no specifics.
Honorable sentiments and noble goals only take us so far, especially when Holcomb's administration is now the third in a row to recognize Indiana's failure to adequately safeguard its infants and children. The governor has a supermajority in the legislature and our state is sitting on a massive surplus. If Indiana can't protect its most vulnerable now, when?