The two most powerful Republicans in the Indiana Legislature said they do not plan to take major action to address a growing crisis in the Department of Child Services during this year's session, which kicked off Wednesday.
The move by House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate leader David Long will buy time for Gov. Eric Holcomb while his administration regroups from the first major criticism the Republican has received since taking office roughly a year ago.
Problems quietly festering at the child welfare agency erupted into public view last month when director Mary Beth Bonaventura penned a scathing resignation letter. She accused Holcomb's administration of management changes and service cuts that "all but ensure children will die" at a time when the opioid epidemic has made number of child welfare cases skyrocket.
Republican leaders braced for fallout Wednesday when they gaveled in the 10-week session. They acknowledged Indiana faces a systemic "crisis," with at least twice the number of children in the child welfare system than other nearby states with larger populations.
But while Democrats called for hearings and suggested lawmakers play an important oversight role, Long questioned whether they were "equipped" to do so.
"I don't think the Legislature should be out there with major hearings going on until the end of session," said Long, of Fort Wayne. "I don't think we're effective at doing that."
Instead, he and Bosma, of Indianapolis, argued that a group brought in by Holcomb to conduct a review should be given time to finish their work, which is not expected to be done until the session is over. That will likely postpone any action by the Legislature until the 2019 session.
Democrats questioned that wisdom.
"We have a duty to know before we leave this session, are the children of this state being adequately protected or not?" said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, of Anderson.
In an emailed statement, Holcomb spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson said the governor plans to "work closely" with lawmakers.
"There is no higher priority for our state than ensuring Hoosier children are healthy and safe, and it's a priority shared by both Indiana's lawmakers and the governor," she said.
For the first time in years, the Republican supermajorities do not have one major goal they plan to accomplish this year. Still, Bosma said lawmakers face too tight of a turnaround to do much to address DCS this session, which is shorter than in years when a new state budget is approved.
Others disputed that suggestion.
"It doesn't matter that this is a short session," said Democratic House Minority Leader Terry Goodin, of Austin. "As I recall, the purpose of a short session is to address emergency matters. What could be more dire than protecting at-risk children?"
Drug-related foster cases shot up across Indiana more than sixfold between 2000 and 2015. Evansville's Vanderburgh County, with a population of 179,000, had more children of drug users enter foster care than major cities including Seattle, Miami and Las Vegas. And in Marion County, cases involving drugs went from about 20 percent of foster children in 2010 to 50 percent five years later.
DCS' recent annual report paints a bleak picture: The agency would need to hire 180 new caseworkers in order to meet a case minimum requirement set in state law. It also has trouble retaining those who are hired for the demanding job, which pays about $33,000 to $35,000 a year.
Meanwhile, foster parents portray an agency in perpetual triage, with a staff stretched so thin that they often have little choice but to cut corners.
In many ways, it seems like a repeat of the past, lawmakers say.
"The same stories that we all heard from case workers in the past, I'm still hearing," Long said. "It's not Gov. Holcomb's fault—it's a systemic issue."