The incoming director of the Indiana Department of Child Services says her goals include figuring out how to reduce caseworker burnout and working with the Legislature to improve the agency's operations and the welfare of children.
Lake Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura told The Times of Munster for a story published Sunday that she hopes her conversations with DCS employees will help her figure out how to reduce turnover and burnout among its caseworkers.
One challenge they face, she said, is needing to quickly make decisions that carry huge ramifications.
Bonaventure said her new job will require reaching out to others and fine-tuning the accomplishments of her predecessor, James Payne.
Bonaventura said Payne, a former juvenile court judge in Indianapolis, was her mentor.
"He was the pioneer, and I'm probably the settler," she said. "I thank him. Today, DCS is a better agency than it was eight years ago."
However, Payne left behind an agency not only marked by high turnover by caseworkers but one roiled by news investigations into its handling of abuse and neglect cases after several children died in troubled homes. Lawmakers and children's advocates blamed a centralized reporting hotline for "screening out" calls that should have been investigated.
Payne resigned last year amid allegations he improperly intervened in a DCS neglect case involving his grandchildren. He denied wrongdoing.
Bonaventura said she will focus on recommendations for improving the hotline determined by lawmakers last year. Legislation to also establish a state commission on children is pending in the General Assembly, and Bonaventura said it would be a partner with DCS.
"It can only help," she said. "We need partners. The court can't do it alone and DCS can't do it alone."
Bonaventura said she also wants to visit all 92 of Indiana's counties to speak directly with judges, regional DCS directors and caseworkers.
"I want them to see my face," she said. "I want them to tell me how I can do this better."
Bonaventura said she will continue to closely watch a DCS pilot project that officials hope will close the gap in providing mental health services for children.
The East Chicago native, appointed the senior judge of Lake Superior Court's Juvenile Division by former Gov. Evan Bayh in 1993, has been a leader in statewide efforts to improve the lives of children, chairing the Civil Rights of Children Committee for the Indiana State Bar Association and the Child Welfare Improvement Committee of the Indiana courts.
Gov. Mike Pence appointed Bonaventura in late January. She has not yet taken over the agency because some juvenile cases in Lake County remained pending and no successor for her had been determined. The Indiana Supreme Court named an interim juvenile court judge last week.
Bonaventure said her appointment was "like a dream come true, really."
"I will work every minute of the day to make sure I don't let anyone down," she said.