“I've been here 22 years,” Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long said last week. “And for 22 years, under whatever iteration or name the organization operated under, it has had serious problems, consistent problems.”
Long was speaking, of course, of the Indiana Department of Child Services, which has been undergoing yet another round of scrutiny since its director resigned in December. The Fort Wayne Republican had risen in support of a resolution introduced by Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville, to create aninterim study committee on agency-related issues. Long also took the moment to express his confidence in the review of the agency now under way by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group of Montgomery, Alabama.
Gov. Eric Holcomb hired a new director and commissioned the consulting group's study after DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura's parting letter warned the state was “bent on slashing our budget in ways that all but ensure children will die.” The Policy and Practice Group has been conducting interviews since the beginning of January. The consulting group is “digging deep,” as Long put it, and has delivered two updates to the governor.
Anyone who doubted the seriousness of Bonaventura's warnings need only read the consultants' findings to date. In its first report at the end of January, the group confirmed the department has been flooded with new cases, largely due to the drug epidemic, and said outdated technology was holding the department back. In the latest report delivered last week, the consultants noted the department doesn't have enough attorneys and questioned whether caseworkers are getting the training they need to handle work that sometimes carries life-or-death consequences.
The legislature has not been idle or unwilling to act. Several bills intended to improve handling of children's cases have been introduced, including six authored or coauthored by Sen. Andy Zay, R-Huntington, that focus on Children in Need of Services cases. Zay's Senate Bill 428, for instance, would address DCS' communications with schools and courts regarding children under its supervision. It passed both the House and Senate unanimously.
But with such cases roughly doubling since 2010, the question for the department always seems to come back to resources, and that kind of question may require both leadership from the governor and a commitment of new funding by the legislature.
The consultants have promised a final report by June 21. But later this month, lawmakers will go home. Under normal procedure, any recommendations by an interim study committee would not be considered until the legislature reconvenes next January – more than a year after Bonaventura sounded the alarm. If lives are at stake, that would be way too long to wait.