Are our children safer?

Abusive BehaviorCrime, Law and JusticeChild AbuseJobs and WorkplacePoliticsMitch Daniels

SOUTH BEND -- The dark-haired young man was apparently uncomfortable, sweating profusely and holding his face in one hand, as he began to answer questions in the packed courtroom.

The former Department of Child Services case manager was called to the stand last month to explain how he investigated a report about children being brutally beaten at 1130 W. Washington St. one night in May 2011. The caller begged authorities to save the routinely abused children in that house -- even to lift the boys' shirts to find bleeding, to see for themselves.

Seeming forgetful and disoriented, the caseworker was handed a box of tissues while he composed himself enough to be able to admit that, days after the report came in, he asked the children about abuse -- always in front of adults, and never singly. They denied being mistreated.

It is DCS protocol to alert adults of abuse allegations against them, he told the courtroom, and, "We're not allowed to strip and search any kids to look for injuries."

DCS closed the case, calling the report "unsubstantiated."

The caseworker transferred to another state agency in South Bend on April 1, 2012, after a little more than a year with DCS, with no blemishes on his record.

Six months after that phone call - in the early morning hours of Nov. 4, 2011 - 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis would be found dead in that house, having been tied with duct tape, beaten and burned.

The caseworker was testifying in last month's trial of the boy's grandmother, Dellia Castile. A jury convicted her of three felony counts of neglect of a dependent for not doing more to keep the boy's father from beating him to death.

After Tramelle died, many who are part of the child-protection system began to speak publicly about what they believe were misguided changes to DCS that might endanger children.
After Tramelle died, Indiana's confidential child protection system, once inscrutable and invisible to most of us, has been placed under a microscope.

'We as a community failed'
Someone else apparently lives in the house where Tramelle was killed. The closest house - the two homes share a sidewalk - is now the one listed for sale.

Little else looks different on the outside, except for fresh paint and a "Private Property" sign hung out front of the fence-circled house where Tramelle and his several siblings lived.

April Natynka, the owner of the house next door, said she initially wanted to buy the house where the Sturgises lived, possibly tearing it down for a park. But the owner wanted far more than market value, she said.

Natynka has instead bought another house and is moving from the neighborhood.

She and others were motivated to join founder Cheryl King in a grassroots group, Our Hands for Humanity. The small group has brought in speakers and gathered information on how residents can help prevent abuse and neglect.

"It broke our community's heart," King said. "One year later I believe there is a raised consciousness that we as a community failed that precious little boy Tramelle, and we do not want another child to fall between the cracks."

At a noon vigil Saturday in the same West Washington Street block, the group will honor the boy's memory and distribute information.

Jennifer Pickering, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse of St. Joseph County, agrees that the community is paying more attention.

"We need to be talking to our kids more," Pickering said, as well as take seriously our suspicions of abuse and neglect in every neighborhood. "Sometimes we treat other families like it's none of our business."

'Kind of appalled'

Calls to the DCS centralized hot line from St. Joseph County rose noticeably after Tramelle died, also spiking during February and March. The Tribune published a child abuse series, "For the Love of Children," every Sunday in February.

The Indianapolis Star reported on the June 2011 beating death of a 12-year-old Greensburg boy whose abuse had been reported at least 19 times.

The reports came as legislators were wrapping up their 2012 session, and some held up copies of both newspapers as they called for changes. A summer study commission was created to examine DCS policies, even as abuse and neglect calls have risen statewide.

The Tribune reports found that since Gov. Mitch Daniels had pulled DCS out of an umbrella agency, DCS:

* Hired hundreds more caseworkers statewide to lower caseloads;

* Consolidated county-level hot lines for reports into one call center in Indianapolis, "screening out" more reports than ever and raising the ire of professionals who said they found it difficult to learn information and to make reports to the hot line;

* Emphasized keeping children at home as much as possible, placing children with relatives if removal is necessary, and drastically cutting money to foster homes and residential treatment facilities;

* And took over all local budget control, negotiating contracts for providers statewide that resulted in many cutting or closing programs and judges complaining about fewer options in working with children in the courtrooms.

St. Joseph Probate Judge Peter Nemeth, who will leave the bench at the end of the year, has been outspoken about what he sees is too much control in Indianapolis. His message has not wavered.
DCS rules are too restrictive, Nemeth said, resulting in fewer creative options for treating troubled kids and taking the least expensive route possible first.

"We're just Band-Aiding these things," Nemeth said about more children entering the system as delinquents now, not adequately helped early on. "I'm kind of appalled. It comes together with me because I hear both types of cases."

Nemeth called former DCS Director James Payne's influence heavy-handed, and he points to an atmosphere of fear against DCS employees who speak out. Payne recently resigned after a news report surfaced of his involvement in a family DCS case and an accusation of slapping his own grandson.

"I think he got a free pass basically because of the governor, and the legislature passed whatever he wanted," Nemeth said.

After Tramelle's death and media attention, Nemeth said, "I think DCS has certainly been more sensitive to public opinion."

'It needs to be fixed'

When homicide investigators began their work into determining what had happened to Tramelle and his siblings, they first had to determine who in his life knew anything.

DCS had only one record in its system - the May 2011 call - because of its rule against saving "unsubstantiated" reports any longer than six months. The General Assembly discarded that practice in March.

St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Dvorak said local DCS employees and law enforcement have been talking about how to better work together, emphasizing when police and prosecutors should be called in.

Local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors statewide "believe there's been a disconnect," Dvorak said, pointing out a lack of DCS oversight. "It hasn't worked well."

Prosecutors also hope legislators will restore prosecutors' ability to request that a child be named a ward of the state when they disagree with DCS workers, as a balance to ensure a child's safety, he said.

DCS policy for call center workers to not notify police directly in serious allegations - instead telling a caller to call 911 themselves, such as in the Sturgis case - should be re-examined, the prosecutor said.

"Was it a failure of the system? Or incompetence of the person taking the call?" Dvorak asked. "It didn't work and it needs to be fixed, so people are making calls to somebody who is well-trained."

In addition, Joel Gabrielse, the deputy prosecutor who led the criminal cases against Tramelle's father and grandmother, said, "It does seem to me there could be some improvements in how investigations are getting done."

In examining whether the case manager who responded to the Sturgis call did anything criminally, Gabrielse said, "So far, we have not found any evidence that anybody willfully failed to cover something up or lied."

But DCS protocols in how to tackle such cases might be lacking, he said.

Dvorak said local law enforcement would like to further explore investigatory techniques with local child-protection workers. DCS has invited his staff to its quality review process later this month.

"Looking back at the Sturgis case, it's fairly obvious how this slipped through the cracks," Gabrielse said.

"If there's a silver lining ... maybe the system could be improved, maybe fewer would slip through the cracks."

Staff writer Dave Stephens contributed to this report.

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