Child services agency sees improvements year after critical report

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Staff turnover is down, caseload sizes are dropping and the ratio of supervisors to case managers has improved in the year since an outside review found numerous shortcomings in the Indiana Department of Child Services.

Information and updates about the progress at DCS were shared Thursday when Gov. Eric Holcomb held a ceremonial signing of two child welfare bills passed in the 2019 legislative session that included support for foster care families and aligning with new practices.

“I want to thank the General Assembly for working tirelessly on legislation to improve DCS policies and practices so that the agency can serve the right child at the right time in the right way,” said Terry Stigdon, director of DCS.

In June 2018, the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, or CWG, gave DCS a report of 20 recommendations that came after a six-month examination of the department. CWG is a not-for-profit that works to help children and families.

Recommendations from the report included improving the workplace culture, lightening the caseload for employees and increasing pay.

Holcomb contracted with CWG after former DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned in a letter critical of the administration, saying the agency didn’t have the resources to keep children safe.

During the 2019 session, legislators passed two laws that address some of the issues raised in the outside report.

Senate Enrolled Act 1, authored by Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, provides more support for foster care families and in-home placement for children.

House Enrolled Act 1006, authored by Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, extends the age foster children can receive services to 21, expands the definition of neglect and updates the DCS caseload standard to comply with national guidelines.

Stigdon said that nearly a year after CWG delivered the final report, all 20 of the outlined recommendations are either in progress or have been implemented.

Stigdon said the annual turnover rate for family case managers is down nearly 19% due in part to the supplemental funding provided by Holcomb. In 2017, the turnover rate was nearly 1-in-3 while the rate dropped to almost 1-in-4 in 2018.

Last year, Holcomb redirected $25 million from the state’s budget surplus to address some of the DCS issues. And lawmakers increased the DCS budget by $243 million in fiscal year 2020 and by $223 million in fiscal year 2021 for a yearly allocation of more than $800 million.

Holcomb said there have also been improvements in DCS culture, which was described in the CWG report as one of fear. Employees told investigators they were concerned that a single wrong step would bring catastrophic consequences and that their managers wouldn't have their backs in difficult situations.

“What we continue to hear from the back office to the front lines is the culture has improved,” he said.

Stigdon said another indicator of culture change is that employees want to stay.

“We now have family case managers that not only want to stay, but they’re doing the job that they signed up for because their caseloads are manageable,” she said. “They can spend time with families and help those families get to where they can be sustainable and healthy. And then we can get out of the way.”

As of May 2019, DCS was 99% in compliance with the 12/17 caseload standard compared to January 2018, when they were only 77% compliant. The 12/17 standard says case managers are supposed to have no more than 12 active cases and monitor no more than 17 children.

Holcomb said the state has come a long way, but isn't done.

“One tragic case is too many, and we have to be ready to address every single case that comes to us, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re not shying away from any of these occurrences. We’re leaning into this work.”

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