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More concerns raised about Indiana's child welfare agency

March 1, 2018

Indiana's child welfare agency faces serious challenges, including case workers who are possibly undertrained, court delays caused by a lack of experienced attorneys and the insufficient availability of substance abuse treatment, according to a state consultant's findings.

The preliminary findings released in a report Thursday were culled from more than 140 interviews conducted by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group with people who work in, or are involved with, the state's child welfare system.

Those interviewed "question whether child welfare front-line staff (have) adequate knowledge and skills," the report stated.

The embattled Department of Child Services has been under scrutiny since former director Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned in December, blasting Gov. Eric Holcomb's administration for service cuts and management changes that she said would "all but ensure children will die."

House Speaker Brian Bosma showed little surprise Thursday at the findings, saying it was something lawmakers "knew already."

"None of these preliminary findings ... were shocking," the Indianapolis Republican said.

Though the consultant group conducted extensive interviews, it has yet to speak with Bonaventura, whose critique of Holcomb led to the ongoing inquiry. That raised eyebrows among some lawmakers.

"What is disturbing ... is the apparent reluctance to discuss any of this with the public official who brought this crisis to everyone's attention," said House Minority Leader Terry Goodin, D-Austin. "If anyone can talk with authority about the problems throughout this system, it's Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura. I simply do not understand why her opinions are not being sought."

Bosma expressed hope that the group would get around to interviewing the well-regarded former juvenile court judge, who has decades of experience in the field and was appointed to lead DCS by former Gov. Mike Pence. The consultant group said it plans to seek an interview.

"We are not micro-managing their work. We are making some suggestions and counting on the experts to do their job well," Bosma said.

The consultant group is expected to release a final report in June. They cautioned that the findings were based on interviews with stakeholders and had not been fully vetted. The preliminary assessment released Thursday was the second of two such updates promised this legislative session and included the following findings:

— There is a shortage of overall services, particularly when it comes to mental health and substance abuse treatment.

— Those involved in the child welfare system question whether front-line child welfare workers are adequately trained.

— Staff in local DCS offices are often hard to reach and unresponsive to phone calls and emails.

— Centralized agency decision-making creates unnecessary work for rank-and-file workers.

— There is a lack of experienced attorneys working for the state on child welfare court cases, leading to court delays.

Paul Vincent, one of the consultants with the group, said more interviews are planned with people within and outside of the agency, including judges and attorneys.

Holcomb's new child welfare chief, Terry Stigdon, praised the group's work, but said she has yet to draw any of her own conclusions.

"I still have a lot of work to do in the field," she said.

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