Members of a study committee appointed earlier this year to investigate growing concerns over Indiana's Department of Child Services wrapped up their work Tuesday, generally calling for more oversight of abuse and neglect reports and of the agency itself.
The policies and costs associated with the panel's final recommendations -- which from here will be written into bills for both the state House and Senate -- will have to be approved by the General Assembly as it begins its work in January.
But the tone of Tuesday's meeting in Indianapolis generally carried a much more cooperative note than contentious portions of the committee's earlier meetings.
Key proposals from the group -- which included state senators John Broden, D-South Bend, and Carlin Yoder, R-Goshen -- include these topics.
DCS oversight panel
The proposed oversight committee -- perhaps the study committee's most ambitious change -- would be comprised of 11 voting members, among them legislators from both political parties, representatives from DCS and the Division of Mental Health and Addiction, a provider of children's services and a juvenile or family court judge.
According to the proposal, the oversight committee would review monthly reports from DCS and the state's DCS ombudsman; review contracts; and study how well other policies are working, such as the centralized call center and staff training.
The draft specifically calls for "an independent audit of the department's operations."
A new, 13-member group called the Commission on Improving the Status of Children would take on not only abuse and neglect issues but also examine health, education, poverty and hunger, infant mortality, mental health, domestic violence, and delinquency.
Central call center
One of the most hotly debated issues across the state -- and among study committee members -- has been the effectiveness of DCS' decision to funnel all reports of abuse and neglect through one call center in Indianapolis, which began in 2010.
DCS has already enacted several initiatives related to the hot line in response to criticisms that too many reports were being screened out without investigation, including from mandatory reporters such as school social workers, police and doctors; that wait times on the phone were too long; and that reaction times were too slow, threatening the safety of children.
Several legislators had called for returning the responsibility to taking such calls to county DCS departments. DCS has argued that centralizing calls from 92 counties has ensured more consistency in how calls are answered and assessed.
The proposal allows the centralized call center to continue to take all calls but for the reports to be dispersed to local offices to decide whether to investigate. The plan also requires all reports from professionals be investigated.
Peg McLeish, deputy chief of staff and press secretary for Senate Democrats, said Broden and Sen. Timothy Lanane "still have some concern over the efficiency of getting reports to the local office and in the hands of investigators as quickly as possible when going through a centralized hot line, given the immediacy in most cases.
"In particular, Senator Lanane has talked about emergency room nurses and doctors who have a very short window of time between making the call and the family walking out of the hospital," McLeish said. "So, this is a case where we hope it will make significant improvements, and our members are prepared to ask for more action if it's not enough."
To help with the additional hot line requirements, legislation was recommended that DCS hire 50 new hot line intake specialists, 10 hot line supervisors, 80 local case managers and 16 supervisors. Based on legislative timetable and rule-making requirements, those changes would likely take place fall 2013 or later.
DCS spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland said Tuesday that DCS is already recruiting 120 new family case managers and 75 supervisors to fill needs across the state related to rising caseloads.
DCS has about 3,000 employees now, McFarland said. The requirement that all reports from professionals be assessed would require 96 additional employees, she said.
Restoring CHINS authority to prosecutors
Until a few years ago, if a county prosecutor felt the need to initiate an abuse or neglect case or disagreed with local DCS authorities about the need to do so, he or she could file a petition with a juvenile court to declare a child a ward of the court, or a Child in Need of Services.
But state law was amended bestowing that authority only to DCS.
Earlier this year, The Tribune reported on a St. Joseph County case of a mother charged with physically abusing her daughter. Despite the fact that the criminal case had not been closed and a no-contact order was in effect between the mother and daughter, DCS closed the CHINS case and the daughter was returned to her mother -- who was later acquitted at trial.
David Powell, executive director of the Association of Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys, described to the study committee Tuesday what he said was his only instance of filing a CHINS petition in his 20 years as a prosecutor in southwestern Indiana. The case involved a homicide, where investigators suspected a wife recruited her two children in a plot to murder her husband, and the need to separate them to question them became clear late on a Friday.
Powell said prosecutors want the ability to file a CHINS petition restored, but they have no interest in adding an abundance of such cases to their workloads.
The committee approved the proposal but added after some debate that prosecutors "may" follow through with such cases instead of merely handing them back to DCS to litigate.
Contact Virginia Black