A Department of Child Services case manager determined earlier this year that children in an Elkhart home had been sexually abused.
When she learned that children from another family were also living in the home, she thought she should interview them as well, so she called Indiana’s centralized abuse and neglect hotline for permission — which was denied.
Candy Yoder, president and CEO of Child and Parent Services of Elkhart, recalls this as a recent example of what she and others describe as a shift in philosophy resulting from the centralized child abuse call center.
CAPS, the agency she leads, works with troubled children and educates others to prevent abuse and neglect. It also conducts “forensic” interviews of children, and it was in that capacity that Yoder said she became aware of the above case.
The DCS worker had described the situation, and when Yoder’s own staff interviewed the original children and became concerned for the safety of the others in the same house, Yoder said she instructed her own forensic interviewer to call the center and ask for a supervisor, who asked, “Well, what proof do you have?” Yoder said the report was turned down — “screened out” — a second time.
The Tribune has published reports about the DCS move that began in 2010 toward a centralized call center in Indianapolis as part of its recent series “For the Love of Children.”
Last week, DCS Director James Payne announced that earlier DCS figures showing a dramatic rise in “screen-out” rates were actually wrong. He said that in 2004, well before the agency altered its system, 46 percent of reports were not followed up on, but that by 2011, the rate was 37 percent.
But Yoder, like other local officials who work with troubled children, describes a definite shift in the numbers of reports the agency reacts to since the hotline began centralization in 2010.
She says that in the last 18 months, her agency has trained nurses, social workers and teachers in Elkhart County’s schools on spotting signs of abuse and neglect and how to react to what they suspect.
That training includes telling them to not ask children any more questions than necessary, instead reporting the suspicion to DCS and leaving follow-up questioning to those specially trained to interview children. By the questions they ask and the words they choose, Yoder said, a well-meaning but untrained person can plant ideas in a child’s head and possibly do more harm than good.
Yet “no longer is a suspicion enough,” Yoder said last week, “but they’re requiring evidence.”
DCS spokeswoman Ann Houseworth said in an e-mail response that DCS case managers are not required to contact the hotline for permission to conduct interviews while in the field.
They “have latitude to conduct interviews with household members without asking for permission from the supervisor,” Houseworth said. “Supervisor approval is sought for detentions, and they are available for case staffing. Once the report is assigned in the field, there is no reason to call the hotline for guidance.”
Heard by legislators?
Yoder said she recently e-mailed her concerns about the screened-out cases to state Rep. Timothy Neese, R-Elkhart, and other legislators, including online links to recent articles.
“I would hate for this matter to be suffocated by partisan politics,” she wrote, “which is being suggested by these media reports.”
The articles reported a flurry of amendments Democrats introduced two weeks ago in response to recent Tribune and Indianapolis Star reports on DCS issues.
The amendments were nearly all defeated, ranging from establishing an oversight committee to implementing a pilot program that would decentralize the call center to requiring child-protection agencies to be under Indiana State Police control.
Yoder said she’s also tried to communicate with DCS about hotline and funding issues, to no avail.
Within the last several weeks, Yoder was asked to participate in a telephone conference examining a random number of screened-out cases, possibly the only non-DCS employee involved, she said.
Of about 32 reports, the group as a whole voted to re-examine two or three of the cases. She was the only one who thought four or five more deserved a second look.
“I don’t take issue with the centralized intake system on principle,” Yoder said. “But my sense is that they’re narrowing the eligibility of the calls they’ll accept.”
Study commission on horizon?
She applauds Payne for a lot of the sweeping DCS changes, saying, “The perspective that he has is generally what I believe.
“But what’s at stake here?” she asked. “You have to expect more than the quality of what you get from a manufacturing facility.”
In earlier defending why his agency was investigating fewer reports — before releasing the updated numbers last week — Payne had told The
Tribune in January that DCS used to be “all things to all people,” taking on mental health or educational issues that were not strictly related to abuse or neglect, for instance.
Yoder said she understands that perspective, yet no provisions are being made to fill those gaps, and more families are struggling without services.
“At some point, it’s hard not to become cynical and throw up my hands,” she said, but heralding the news last week that an interim study commission is near approval by the General Assembly to study DCS-related issues, including the call center.
According to the online digest, the committee would: “(1) study and review the progress and improvements made by the department; (2) review best practices concerning child welfare, child mental health, and delinquent children; (3) receive and review status reports from the department of child services ombudsman; (4) review and study the department's child services child abuse and neglect hotline; and (5)
make legislative recommendations.”
“I think we’ve been heard by legislators,” she said. “I think some transparency would address a lot of this.”
Contact Virginia Black:
Even trained workers 'screened out?'
Elkhart official concerned about DCS call center
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