Just when things seemed to be looking up at Indiana's Department of Child Services, along came a lawsuit claiming the agency is failing to protect the thousands of children in its care.
Core problems at the state's child-welfare agency have not been solved, according to the suit filed by two advocacy groups and an international law firm on behalf of several foster children, including two brothers in Allen County. Among its allegations: The agency removes too many children from their homes, often places them in inappropriate settings and allows them to “unnecessarily languish in foster care.”
Most of the problems alleged in the suit are similar to those detailed in years of official studies and impassioned legislative debates. The latest chapter began in late 2017, when Director Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned and a six-month investigation confirmed the agency had to make fundamental changes.
By many accounts, the new director, Terry Stigdon, has made a good start. “They are doing a total institutional change from top to bottom,” Indiana Rep. Wendy McNamara reported to the Indiana Commission on Improving the Status of Children in Indiana last week.
McNamara, who chairs a commission oversight committee, noted the department has already reduced the workloads of its lawyers and case managers, empowered decision-making at the local level and improved what last year's report called a workplace “culture of fear.”
That progress, and the fact that the number of cases the department is handling has dropped dramatically, had led the legislature to reduce the governor's request for DCS funding by $80 million over the current biennium. Indiana House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta said last week the problems alleged in the suit suggest that may have been premature. “They claim that things are going so much better,” GiaQuinta said. “Maybe they should have kept those dollars in there.”
Despite that cut, the Family and Children's services fund will total more than $1 billion over the next two years. Chris Daley, executive director of the Indiana Association of Resources and Child Advocacy, says more of that money should go to the non-governmental organizations his association comprises.
Daley said last week his impression is Stigdon's department is making progress on pay and other issues. “Lawsuits are always backwards-looking,” Daley said. “I would not necessarily say this lawsuit reflects what's been happening (recently).” But reimbursement rates for private providers, which are also determined by the Department of Child Services, are still lagging, Daley said.
Though departmental case managers are always involved at some level, private providers supply home-based services to most DCS families, manage about half the state's foster-family placements, and often have the best opportunity to head off problems like the lawsuit describes. “When we talk about the child welfare community,” Daley said, private service providers “are the folks who work day to day with families.”
Sharon Pierce, executive director of The Villages of Indiana, which serves northeast Indiana and other areas, says organizations such as hers try to match appropriate foster families and kids. That approach ensures ''the trauma of a kid's experience when they're removed from a family isn't exacerbated by multiple foster placements,” Pierce said.
The lawsuit may point the state to other necessary changes. But the challenge of channeling more resources toward the private providers allied with her agency is one that Stigdon, with two years of overall funding in place, could address now.