Indiana lawmakers reviewing the embattled Department of Child Services voted Tuesday to localize more decisions on when to investigate cases of child abuse and neglect and set up a permanent oversight committee at the Statehouse.
Members of a study committee reviewing DCS operations asked the state to draft emergency regulations that would give county field workers a voice in the handling of abuse and neglect calls to a central hotline. The panel also proposed creating a permanent legislative committee to oversee the agency and recommended expanding and adding child fatality review teams.
Tuesday's action came after months of emotional hearings on troubles at the agency following news media investigations into dozens of child deaths across the state. Lawmakers and children's advocates blamed the state's centralized abuse reporting hotline in large part for "screening out" calls that should have been investigated.
DCS officials said Tuesday's decision would maintain a centralized reporting system they have called a national model, while decentralizing decisions on which calls are investigated.
"The hotline would send all calls to the local office, then the local office would make the decision under this plan" David Judkins, DCS deputy director of field operations, told the panel.
The state estimates the program would cost $9 million, much of it for hiring new caseworkers to work in the county field offices. DCS has struggled to retain caseworkers, largely based on the low salary offered by the state.
The new plan could face a potential road bump with Gov.-elect Mike Pence, who has promised to place a moratorium on new regulations upon taking office. His campaign has pointed out, however, that the proposed moratorium includes an exemption for "rules necessary to address emergency health or safety concerns."
The panel also signed off on submitting the new plan as legislation next year, should it need to be written into the state's books, rather than leaving it as a recommended administrative move by DCS.
The group also proposed creating an 11-member Committee on Child Services Oversight consisting of lawmakers, state agency representatives and appointees from the public defenders council and the prosecuting attorneys council. The panel would study monthly reports from DCS, review DCS contractors and ponder a range of other issues.
Oversight and training of local child fatality review teams would also be shifted from DCS to the state health department. Counties would be required to create review teams or join together to staff regional teams that would investigate child deaths that are "sudden," ''unexpected" or "unexplained."
Committee co-chair Sen. Travis Holdman, a Merkle Republican, thanked panel members for their extensive work on the issue as they wrapped up their final meeting Tuesday.
"I'm into my sixth year (as a senator) and I don't think I've ever been on a more intense study committee than this one," he said.