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State panel on improving child lives meets first time

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A panel directed by lawmakers to find ways to improve the lives of vulnerable Indiana children over the coming year met for the first time Wednesday with a challenging to-do list ahead of it.

The Commission on Improving the Status of Children established earlier this year by the General Assembly brings together agency chiefs, representatives of the judicial system and legislators to examine issues besetting vulnerable youths, recommending ways to improve their lives and opening channels of communication among the myriad state agencies responsible for children.

"There's plenty to do," said Indiana Supreme Court Justice Loretta Rush, a former juvenile court judge who chairs the panel this year.

The commission grew out of a review last year of complaints about the Indiana Department of Child Services. Rush says one key recommendation from that study was to improve communication and coordination among state agencies that also include the Department of Education, the Division of Mental Health and Addiction and the prison system.

DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura, herself a former juvenile court judge, said her agency's priorities include identifying at-risk youth earlier than it does now.

Gov. Mike Pence sent a letter to commission members saying "nothing matters more to the future of our state than the well-being of children." He noted that one in five Indiana children live in poverty.

"Low-income children in Indiana fare worse on third grade reading tests than their peers, they struggle with obesity rates above the state average, they are more likely to be victims of crime, and they are more likely to be raised in single-parent families in which poverty rates are significantly higher than in families headed by two married parents," Pence wrote.

Several agency heads said they want to make services including health care and addiction counseling available statewide and not just in urban centers.

The commission's next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 16 in Indianapolis.

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