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Democratic leader questions GOP 'secrecy' on child agency

January 4, 2018

Statehouse Democrats say they are troubled by Republican "secrecy" as Gov. Eric Holcomb and the GOP majority scramble to contain fallout from a burgeoning crisis in Indiana's child welfare agency.

"It needs to be in the sunlight, not in the darkness," Democratic House Minority Leader Terry Goodin said in an interview Thursday. "They are creating more questions with secrecy."

Republicans gaveled in the 2018 General Assembly on Wednesday and voiced concern over the problems of the Department of Child Services, but decided not to hold public hearings about it this session. Trouble building at the agency burst into public view in December after director Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned in a letter criticizing Holcomb's administration for management changes and service cuts amid a surge in caseloads fueled by the opioid crisis.

Instead of hearings, Republicans want a consultant brought on by Holcomb to conclude a review—work that's unlikely to be finished until after lawmakers leave town afgter the session ends March 16. That likely means that any legislative action would have to wait until 2019, or for a special session called by the governor.

"I don't think the Legislature should be out there with major hearings going on until the end of session," said Republican Senate leader David Long, of Fort Wayne. "I don't think we're equipped to do it."

The latest wrinkle came Thursday, when House Speaker Brian Bosma alluded to a private group Holcomb was "convening" to do fact-finding work, much like what Democrats had hoped to accomplish in committee.

"It's not a committee. It's more of an open discussion with advocates," said Bosma, of Indianapolis. "I've asked the governor to have a representative of our team there so we can hear some of these first-hand stories."

Holcomb has pledged to work with lawmakers on the DCS issue. But Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, of Anderson, say they were blindsided. When told about it by a reporter, Goodin said he planned to draft a letter to Holcomb inquiring why they were left out.

In a statement, Holcomb spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson said it was all part of work done by their consultant.

"The Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group will be meeting with DCS, providers, lawmakers and other stakeholders as part of its comprehensive assessment of the agency," Wilson said. "Ultimately, the governor wants the facts and to ensure kids are healthy and safe."

It's unclear what the Alabama-based not-for-profit is getting paid. Wilson said the state was still finalizing the contract.

While Republicans say DCS faces serious issues, they have staunchly defended Holcomb, who has only been in office a year.

"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."

Still, it's caught Holcomb flat footed. He has yet to respond to detailed allegations about his administration's handling of the agency that were lodged by Bonaventura, a respected former juvenile court judge appointed to the position five years ago by then-Gov Mike Pence.

Add it all up, and his critics say it seems like damage control.

"I don't think they are getting the seriousness of this," said Goodin.

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