It's not often legislation receiving a 50-0 bipartisan vote of approval receives so much attention, but some Democrats continue using Senate Bill 286 as a legislative vehicle for their unfounded and unnecessary attacks on the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS).
Recently, stories in the media have criticized the performance of DCS based on reports about Hoosier children who have died from abuse. Everyone agrees these deaths are an unspeakable tragedy and are completely unacceptable. Still, we must be careful to not politicize this issue. Instead we must continue each day with the hard work of improving child protection in Indiana, as DCS has been quietly doing with great success in recent years.
Gov. Mitch Daniels created the DCS by executive order in 2005 to provide more direct attention and oversight in two critical areas – child protection and child support enforcement. Statistics show some dramatic results have followed.
While the Daniels administration has become known for its frugal management and reduction in state workers during its budget-balancing tenure, the number of DCS Family Case managers has more than doubled since 2004 – from 785 to 1,614 today.
That means more focused time for each child served by DCS. Monthly visits have gone from just over 10 percent in 2005 to more than 95 percent in 2011.
Ultimately, one of the most important statistics is the 98 percent of children who leave the Indiana child welfare system with a safe, permanent family. Indiana now ranks second nationally in that category. A record 1,787 adoptions were completed in 2011.
How has all of this been possible? A renewed focus on family case manager training has helped DCS make these significant strides.
Consider that in 2005, no training was provided to caseworkers prior to starting a new position. They were given a full caseload on day one and had to learn on the job. Today, someone starting a new position must complete a 12-week training program before receiving a caseload.
And the education is ongoing. Every DCS worker is now required to complete 24 hours of updated training each year to stay abreast of the latest information, strategies and trends.
Another positive change is the development of a centralized Indiana Child Abuse/Neglect Hotline. Before 2004, there were more than 350 locations answering calls. Needless to say, the response effort was disorganized and confusing. Today, there is only one location answering calls – and last year it filed nearly twice as many reports as the 350 call centers did combined.
Unlike some lawmakers, many have taken notice of these achievements. The organization has been honored three times in the past three months for its work, including the 2012 Commissioner's Award from the Administration on Children, Youth and Families.
SB 286 builds on this success model in many ways:
It would allow DCS to perform a criminal history check of a child's parents/guardians and anyone else in the home before returning a child who has been removed from that house. Current law only allows background checks on parents and guardians.
Counties would be permitted to share resources and create "child fatality review teams" that examine circumstances behind child fatalities and explore how similar tragedies can be prevented. Today's budget realities don't allow most counties the resources to create such a team on their own.
It would reduce the maximum time children can spend in emergency shelters before placement in a permanent living situation.
SB 286 is set for final approval in the legislature this week before heading to the governor's desk to be signed into law.
In the throes of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover once said that children "are our most valuable natural resource." Both the DCS and Indiana Senate believe that is still true today. We will continue to say so – not with politically motivated words, but through action and legislation on behalf of Hoosier children.