NEAL: Child Protection an Issue in Governor’s Race
For release Aug. 1 and thereafter (657 words)
by Andrea Neal
Within days of taking office in 2005, Gov. Mitch Daniels issued an executive order creating a new Department of Child Services. The handling of abuse and neglect cases was “a matter of life and death for many children,” Daniels said, but it was not getting the attention it deserved under the Family and Social Services Administration.
Governor Daniels named Marion County Juvenile Judge James W. Payne to lead the Cabinet-level department and asked the legislature to turn his executive order into law. Over the next several years Judge Payne set about hiring 800 new staff members to manage caseloads better.
Despite those aggressive first steps toward reform, child protection has proved to be Daniels’ most problematic legacy. Two high-profile deaths have dominated the headlines, and the Indiana General Assembly has set up an interim study committee to review the department’s operations.
Even national experts are divided over whether things have gotten better or worse under Daniels.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation this year published a glowing case study of Indiana that credited Daniels “and his child services team” with an impressive overhaul of the system that catapulted Indiana to the top in most measures of child welfare.
The report said, “Once at or near the bottom of virtually every category of child services performance measures among the 50 states, Indiana now ranks 10th in reunification, 2nd in timeliness of adoption, 3rd in permanency, and 11th in placement stability.”
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, has a different view. He said Indiana gives lip service to family preservation programs, which work intensively with families in crisis to prevent removal of children from their homes and keep them safe.
As evidence Wexler cites the following: In 2000, Indiana removed 5,576 children from allegedly abusive parents. In 2010, the number was 9,170 children – an increase of more than 60 percent and a removal rate 55 percent higher than the national average.
Wexler credits Daniels with good intentions but two mistakes. The first was failing to select a leader with a bolder reform agenda. The second was creating the Department of Child Services (DCS) in the first place.
“The few relatively good child welfare systems in America include some which are separate children’s services agencies and some that are divisions of larger human services agencies. There is no evidence that either approach is better. Creating DCS wasted time rearranging deck chairs as the ship continued to sink,” Wexler said.
The Democrat candidate for governor, John Gregg, hopes to make an issue of children’s services in his campaign against Republican Mike Pence.
“It’s broken, it’s embarrassing and it will get better,” declared Gregg, who says one of his first acts as governor would be to convene a committee of experts and give them 60 days to recommend a reform strategy.
Pence says “Indiana has made improvements” under Daniels, and he’ll consider further expanding services with permanent homes for children his priority.
The differing assessments from Casey Foundation and Wexler show just how tricky a political issue child protection can be. It’s complicated further by media attention given the deaths of children whose families had come into contact with DCS.
In Greensburg, Tasha Parsons beat to death her 12-year-old son, Devin, about two weeks after a case worker had visited their home. The mother was sentenced in July to 60 years in prison.
In South Bend, DCS was called to the home of Terry Sturgis on reports of abuse but again did not take action to remove his children. Sturgis in June was sentenced to 140 years for killing his 10-year-old son, Tramelle.
Advocates disagree on whether DCS could or should have done more in those homes, but they do agree on this: Child protection policy cannot be based on the handful of cases that generate headlines.
In my next column, I’ll look more closely at the changes that have occurred since Payne became director of the Department of Child Services.
Andrea Neal is adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at email@example.com.