Mike Pence's tenure as Indiana governor had some rocky moments, but it also had a signature achievement in its attention to at-risk children – specifically, his appointment of Mary Beth Bonaventura as director of the Indiana Department of Child Services. The respected Lake County judge stepped in to quickly restore an agency failing in its mission to protect abused and neglected children.
But Bonaventura resigned last week, blasting Pence's successor for budget cuts she said will “all but ensure children will die.” In a resignation letter obtained by the Indianapolis Star, Bonaventura wrote she was choosing to resign “rather than be complicit in decreasing the safety, permanency and well-being of children who have nowhere else to turn.”
Such strongly worded warnings are unusual when public officials leave office; they are virtually unheard of in Indiana. And given Bonaventura's stellar record on child protection, her charge that current policies endanger children can't be ignored.
“I've known Mary Beth Bonaventura for my entire career,” said Allen Superior Court Judge Charles F. Pratt, a member of the Indiana Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. “She is honest and forthright. I've never known her to be anything but a woman of great integrity. She is passionate about doing what she believes is right. (Indiana's family court judges) greatly respected the hard work she has done. This comes as a shock.”
Rachel Tobin-Smith, who directed Stop Child Abuse and Neglect for 33 years before her retirement in 2016, also praised Bonaventura's work, calling her a “true advocate for children.”
The outgoing DCS director wrote in her resignation letter that Gov. Eric Holcomb had stripped her of authority to run her agency by appointing Eric Miller, who had no experience in child welfare, as her chief of staff because he “was an asset during the campaign.”
Bonaventura claimed Miller bullied staff, exposed the department to lawsuits, overturned her decisions, created a hostile work environment and was “brazenly insubordinate.” She also said he ordered budget cuts without her knowledge, and that more than 1,000 families would be left without appropriate court-ordered services as a result of the nearly $15 million reduction in contract amounts with child-protection providers.
Bonaventura charged the governor's office with allowing her agency to request only a fraction of the funding and staffing needed to protect children.
If her claims sound familiar – they should. Pence appointed Bonaventura to restore confidence in an agency devastated by the same budget-slashing efforts. Former Director James Payne reverted millions appropriated for child protection to state coffers, even as the number of abuse and neglect cases was escalating.
“Since the height of the recession in 2009, the Department of Child Services has seen deep cuts to their funding and it appears that those cuts are continuing, putting our children at an unnecessary risk,” said Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, in a release Monday. “The state seems to place a priority on preserving the nearly two billion dollar budget surplus, rather than protecting children. Discussions about cutting the budget to the agency responsible for protecting kids increasingly harmed by Indiana's opioid crisis are wholly irresponsible.”
Lanane pledged to question the administration in budget sessions and to introduce legislation in the coming session to ensure children are safe.
Holcomb defended his administration's position Monday: “As I said on Friday, I'm grateful for Director Bonaventura's years of service and her commitment to keeping Hoosier kids safe. I share that commitment and that's why the state continues to make investments in the agency. We are providing record funding to DCS with nearly half a billion dollars more in funding support over the next two years. We will continue to do all we can to protect children.”
Take note, Governor: Your predecessor got it right when it came to protecting the most vulnerable Hoosiers. Child protection is not the place to look for cost savings.