By the time Travis Thieneman discovered that his girlfriend was pregnant with his child, the two had already split up.
The 26-year-old southern Indiana man says he was worried enough about their infant that he called the state’s child abuse hot line twice in late 2010.
methadone withdrawal, the father said in a recent phone interview. Thieneman told the intake specialist with the Department of Child Services that the baby’s mother had apparently taken so much medication that she was slurring her words and that he was worried about her ability to care for a newborn and her 6-year-old disabled child.
The Pekin, Ind., man said the child’s mother would call him to take the baby or stay with him as she needed help. He said he placed the second call for help on Dec. 15, on one of those days she’d asked for baby-sitting, after he was looking for diaper rash cream and discovered that furniture in the tiny home — including the baby’s crib — had apparently been burned by dropped cigarettes.
He said he was told the first time he called that there did not appear to be imminent danger; in the second, the DCS operator told him they’d likely wait to act when there were “actual burns” on the child.
Gaven died a week later, at 18 days old. An autopsy showed multiple skull fractures, four broken ribs and hemorrhaging up and down his spine, his father said.
No one has been charged in the baby’s death, but Thieneman filed suit last fall against the baby’s mother and DCS.
“I’ve played that over and over in my head so many times,” Thieneman said of his attempts to gain full custody and to alert authorities. “I would have thought at some point someone would have stood up for Gaven.”
It was only after the lawsuit was filed that he and his attorney discovered that the baby’s mother had actually had her older child taken by DCS for five years, he said, and that the older child had recently been returned when Gaven was born. The mother “had a whole other life I wasn’t aware of,” he said.
The young man said that until this happened, he had no idea how DCS works, and Thieneman hopes the lawsuit helps lessen the amount of confidentiality that envelops the system.
“I think in cases where there’s been a child removed in the past, there should be some sort of access to it,” he said. “All that’s sealed, and (people) could have the darkest past ever as far as child abuse and neglect.”
‘Confidential is really secret’
When the current juvenile system was being developed and its laws first written, St. Joseph Probate Judge Peter Nemeth said, the world was different.
In 1962, for instance, only 5 percent of children were born out of wedlock. Now, the national figure is closer to 42 percent, and that stigma is gone.
“If I were in the legislature, I would be in favor of losing that confidentiality,” Nemeth said recently. “I think what you lose in keeping it confidential is the accountability factor.”
According to state law, all child-protection information is confidential, except in cases of a fatality or “near-fatality,” where a judge can decide what relevant DCS records can be released to the public.
Indiana has a child fatality review team that studies and reports on deaths of Indiana children. But the team’s public reports, released online, do not delve into specifics of what happened — or did not happen — in those deaths. Instead, they provide broad recommendations and a general overview.
Legislators created a DCS ombudsman office in 2010. The ombudsman, who reports directly to the governor, investigates complaints involving DCS. But the ombudsman’s public reports also contain only general trends and only non-identifying information about specific cases.
State Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Goshen, introduced a bill this legislative session that would provide more staffing for the ombudsman office and introduce a “DCS evaluation committee,” but it does not appear to be gaining much ground.