The Journal Gazette
Friday, April 05, 2019 1:00 am



State policies, priorities leave children at risk

In a year or two, JoJo Belcher will be just another number in Indiana's Annual Report of Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. The 2-year-old, wrapped in a blanket, was blue and cold to the touch when emergency crews arrived at her family's East Butler Street home Jan. 27, 2018. An autopsy showed a hemorrhage in her neck. The Allen County coroner ruled neck compression as the cause of death. Forearm fractures and other injuries were consistent with abuse, doctors told investigators.

Two-year-old Malakai Garrett wasn't breathing when he was carried into Fire Station 13 on North Clinton Street Nov. 29, 2017. Malakai, who was pronounced dead less than two hours later, will also be represented by a number in the state report. An autopsy found internal injuries consistent with strikes from a closed fist, according to a doctor. Malakai's organs were “shredded,” his kidney was bruised and he suffered a lacerated pancreas and liver. 

Adults close to the children are responsible for their deaths, but JoJo, Malakai and dozens of other children also were neglected by the state of Indiana. They had the misfortune to spend their too-brief lives in the state with the third-highest child fatality rate and the second-highest child abuse rate. It's a disgraceful record made worse by Statehouse negligence.

Indiana's child abuse rate increased from 13.7 victims per 1,000 children in 2013 to 18.6 victims per 1,000 children in 2017. There were 29,189 victims of abuse reported and investigated in 2017.  Indiana's child fatality rate is 4.96 deaths per 100,000 children. That's more than twice the national average of 2.32 deaths per 100,000 children.

The numbers come from the Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, based on data submitted by the states through the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. Only Kentucky had a higher child abuse rate than Indiana. Arkansas has the highest child fatality rate.

Problems with Indiana's Department of Child Services are longstanding and well-documented, but the bottom line is the lack of resources devoted to prevention efforts, including the department's foster homes and the organizations they work with. In 2009, foster parents sued the state after the agency cut rates for daily care by 10 percent. A settlement resulted in new rates in 2012, but the loss of resources to foster families in the interim was costly for the children involved.

 A new federal lawsuit targets another shortcoming. The Children's Advocacy Institute at the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego School of Law asserts Indiana violates due process and equal protection rights by not providing legal representation to abused and neglected children in dependency proceedings. The suit alleges some children were transferred among more than 20 foster homes before age 3 or deprived of adoptive parents because they lacked counsel. Thirty states require legal representation for children in dependency proceedings. Federal money is available to support it.

But child protection isn't the responsibility of the Department of Child Services alone. It's often too late when the agency must step in.

Years of neglect of the state's safety net is the real culprit: A lack of attention to the growing opioid addiction crisis. Disregard for growing income inequality, with median household income falling by more than $4,500 since 2009. Declining support for public schools, where teachers, counselors, nurses and administrators represent the first line of defense for more than 90 percent of the state's school-age population.

With a dismal record on child protection and an infant mortality rate that is seventh highest in the nation, Indiana should be devoting much attention to children and the safety net that protects them. But Gov. Eric Holcomb's Next Level Agenda is topped by economic development legislation. The General Assembly's efforts at child protection focus on abortion restrictions and active-shooter drills at schools. Substantive measures to reduce the risk factors involved in child abuse are sorely lacking.

Who will speak for JoJo, Malakai and the Indiana children now at risk?

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