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Tuesday, July 24, 2018 1:00 am

5 studies examine Child Services

Say similar things; legislators learn only in June

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Five evaluations of the Indiana Department of Child Services between 2013 and 2017 cost more than $1.3 million and didn't appear to make a dent in agency struggles.

The reports contain similar threads on training, organizational support and removing children from homes perhaps too quickly.

DCS has been dealing with exploding caseloads of abused and neglected children for years, and spending hundreds of millions each year trying to keep pace with turnover of caseworkers.

The existence of the studies only became known in June when the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group mentioned that many of their recommendations were contained in similar analyses.

Gov. Eric Holcomb hired CWG in January after former DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned with a scathing critique of the administration. She said cost-saving attempts would result in harm coming to abused and neglected children.

But the older studies weren't publicized and even legislative leaders were surprised to learn of their existence.

“I find it kind of disingenuous that those reports were being compiled, and the legislative branch of government knew nothing about them and we fund their budget,” said Democrat Rep. Greg Porter, a member of the State Budget Committee. “That's a lot of money for some reports that yielded no real return.”

All five evaluations came under Bonaventura's tenure – four when Vice President Mike Pence was governor and one under Holcomb.

Bonaventura didn't return messages seeking comment.

The reports are the following:

• 2013 – Indiana University: Staging a Turnover Turnaround, no cost.

• 2013 – The Casey Family Foundation: Enhancing Front-End Performance, $67,571.

• 2015 – Deloitte: Caseload and Workload Analysis, $561,589

• 2015 – National Child Welfare State Workforce Institute: Comprehensive Organizational Health Assessment, $100,000

• 2017 – Alvarez and Marsal: Efficiency Assessment, $650,000

The National Child Welfare report described two shifts in policy or priority. The first was pressure from central office toward a more conservative practice “with an emphasis on removal when there is any question about safety.” This led to more court cases rather than trying to mitigate through informal adjustments on in-home services. Some staff said this was due to Bonaventura's appointment in January 2013.

The second shift was “increased oversight and micromanagement of frontline practice that has resulted in less autonomy and decision-making authority” for family case managers and supervisors around the state.

Porter said he isn't surprised by that finding due to some negative press when children died after DCS was warned of abuse.

“I understand that leadership does get gun-shy,” he said.

There were also concerns in several reports regarding how drug use by a parent is handled.

The Casey report said DCS' substance abuse field generally identifies three levels of substance involvement – use, misuse and abuse – but staff lump all three together as abuse if there is a positive drug test. Oftentimes there was no corresponding evidence of harm.

“It appears that judicial philosophies about drug use and parents retaining physical custody of their children following a positive drug screen reflect the most critical area influencing removals,” the Casey report said

The National Child Welfare study also said some interviewed believe local judges have overstepped.

“(Family Case Managers) in two regions noted that decisions about substantiation and removal are largely determined by the local county judges. As they described, a judge in one county may not open a drug-related case even when DCS recommends removal, while in the neighboring county, a judge will order removal if there is any evidence of parental substance use,”

The Casey findings also recommended distinguishing patterns of drug use and identifying supports for parents to retain children while completing treatment.

New DCS Director Terry Stigdon said in June they are studying this issue.

At that time, House Speaker Brian Bosma said removing children for a single positive drug test seems severe. Other circumstances, such as having the child in a car with them vs. the child being home safely with adult supervision, should be considered.

“I don't know that's neglect,” he said.

That item has specifically been assigned to a legislative group studying DCS.

The IU report on turnover said even more than money, turnover is related to a lack of organizational support for caseworkers and emotional exhaustion.

“Case managers feel that the Department of Child Services treats its clients more fairly than it treats them” and generally report a lack of support from DCS.

The IU report called this one of the most salient findings of the research.

“Any attempts that can be made including newsletters, emails, and face-to-face interactions with DCS administrators and regional managers should be made to increase the familiarity of case management staff with those who are perceived to be at the top of the organization. In addition, efforts need to be made to specifically plan for and utilize symbolic gestures to reinforce DCS's investment in their case management staff.”

The most recent report, by Alvarez and Marsal, focused on the financial picture for the agency, and estimated that DCS could save between $65 million and $122 million via programmatic efficiencies.

nkelly@jg.net