The Journal Gazette
Thursday, February 01, 2018 1:00 am

Experts sharpen scrutiny of DCS

Consultant helping assess child welfare crisis

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – An outside consultant evaluating Indiana's child welfare system has identified two key challenges the state faces and has laid out a plan for the next several months.

The group's first update will be released today, but The Journal Gazette received a copy of the report early.

The Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group was tapped by Gov. Eric Holcomb in December to conduct an assessment after the resignation of Mary Beth Bonaventura, director of the Department of Child Services. She blasted the governor for budget decisions and administrative policy that will “all but ensure children will die.”

She said Holcomb allowed her agency to request only a fraction of the funding and staffing needed to protect children. And Bonaventura said she was stripped of her authority to run her agency when Holcomb appointed a chief of staff.

The number of Indiana children in need of protection has risen in recent years to almost 30,000. Illinois has twice the population but half as many abused and neglected children in its system.

The Alabama nonprofit found that Indiana needs an “automated data system that more readily produces management reports which allow staff at all levels to continuously monitor their performance on key processes and outcomes.”

And the group also noted a substantial number of abused and neglected children in out-of-home care. That number has grown from 8,897 in December 2012 to 16,834 in December 2017.

The state's contract with the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group was posted late Wednesday. It calls for a maximum payment of $146,000 and ends June 21.

The nonprofit has previously worked with the state – from April 2006 to June 2009 – when it provided technical assistance in system evaluation and staff training and coaching throughout the state.

“As a result, the Child Welfare Group already has a working knowledge of child welfare operations in the state and can quickly concentrate on the most relevant issues surrounding current concerns about system performance,” the contract's scope of work said.

Staffers with the nonprofit plan to shadow case managers and supervisors in Allen, Vanderburgh, Marion, Clark and Lake counties. Some of that has already started in Indianapolis.

The report said the group will observe the front-line staff, supervisors and administrative staff on daily duties in those regions and will conduct in-home visits and attend court hearings.

Others who will be interviewed include children and families served by the system, advocacy organizations, service providers, foster and adoptive parents, legal partners such as juvenile judges, law enforcement and House and Senate leadership.

Republican lawmakers have taken a hands-off approach until after the review.

Some of the information the nonprofit plans to compile:

• Reasons for removing children from their parents' home

• Data on in-home services

• Length of stay and other information related to out-of-home care

• Workforce characteristics such as experience, education and vacancy rates

• Budget, workload and caseload trends

• Child welfare policies and licensing standards

• A random sampling of case files to be reviewed

About five years ago, lawmakers put into law a requirement that a family case manager's caseload not exceed 12 initial assessments or 17 children monitored on an ongoing basis. Former Gov. Mitch Daniels hired more than 800 caseworkers during his tenure, and the system stabilized somewhat.

Then the opioid epidemic hit, and the number of abused and neglected children has risen 88 percent since 2012. That count is based just on formal “children in need of services” petitions. There are thousands more informal cases.

Overall, there are now 2,468 case managers, a jump from 1,545 in 2012. But the state still doesn't generally meet the law's caseload limit.

State officials have directed money to the problem to no avail. In 2015, then-Gov. Mike Pence twice diverted money from other areas to DCS – a total of about $15 million – to hire 200 case managers and some supervisors.

And last year, Holcomb's administration sought an additional $200 million for the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years. Lawmakers gave it. To finish out fiscal year 2017, state budget officials transferred $137 million in one-time surplus dollars to DCS.

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