Holcomb pledges action on 'culture of fear' at Indiana DCS

By BRIAN SLODYSKO, Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb pledged action on Monday after a review of the state's child welfare system found that dysfunction, a perceived lack of resources and a "culture of fear" contributed to widespread problems at the embattled agency.

Many of the problems detailed in a report were already well documented. Five different reviews of the Department of Child Services conducted in recent years found similar issues, though the documents were shelved with limited action taken, Holcomb said.

"I said at very outset, I wanted the good, the bad and the ugly," Holcomb said of the new report, which he commissioned in December. "This is on my watch. And what's different is we're going to act on these recommendations."

Long festering problems in Indiana's child welfare system exploded into public view in December, when former DCS director Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned. In a scathing letter, she accused the Republican governor's administration of making management changes and service cuts that "all but ensure children will die."

Child welfare cases have skyrocketed across the U.S. in recent years, as has the number of children placed in foster care because their addict parents can't care for them. But the problem is particularly acute in a handful of states, including Indiana.

While the GOP super-majorities that control the Legislature declined to take up the issue during this year's legislative session, Holcomb brought in an Alabama-based consultant, the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, to review the agency.

Among the groups findings released Monday:

  • "A culture of fear" has led workers to place concern over "personal liability related to actions" above the "long-term well-being of children."
  • Nearly 45 percent of family case managers have caseloads that are greater than the standard set by state law.
  • The agency has a high rate of turnover driven by low morale and low pay.
  • A bureaucratic agency culture has made some caseworkers reluctant to request sometimes-costly services for children in need.
  • The amount of money spent on drug testing is five times greater than the amount spent on drug treatment.

While the report found serious deficiencies in the agency, it also suggested that some of the problems and funding challenges faced by the agency could be driven by workers who have "broad mandates" and are too quick to escalate cases.

For example, it found the state conducts more child welfare assessments than "almost any state," but only 15 percent of those are substantiated.

"Indiana has an exceptionally high rate of court involvement in child welfare cases," the report states. "While this adds oversight to child welfare cases, it also results in higher staff caseloads, more staff time in court and higher DCS costs."

Holcomb said Monday that he will allocate $25 million from the state's budget surplus to pay for raises for DCS workers and will begin to implement some of the report's recommendations. But he stopped short of calling for additional money for DCS, which has already gone more than $200 million over the $608 million allocated to the agency in the state's current two-year budget.

He suggested that some of the recommendations included in the report could reduce costs.

"There's a lot of moving parts. ... As you improve in one area, that can draw down costs in another area," Holcomb said.

Some remained skeptical that the state will truly fix the agency instead of merely tinkering with its organizational structure or legal semantics — like how the term "neglect" is defined in state law — to limit the circumstances that will trigger a child welfare case.

"I am a little concerned about fooling with the definition of 'neglect,'" said Democratic Rep. Ed DeLaney, of Indianapolis. "What are we trying to do? Have we been too generous to our children in defining what's 'neglect?' That is not an area that I would think is useful for us to work on."

House Democratic Minority Leader Terry Goodin said that, either way, it's a positive step that the GOP majorities are recognizing there is a problem.

"Today, at long last, the people in charge of state government acknowledge that DCS is broken. It has taken more than a decade to get to this point, but we're there," Goodin said. "The question is now where do we go from here?"

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