Reforming Child Welfare Isn’t so Easy

August 13, 2012

For release Aug. 15 and thereafter (720 words)

by Andrea Neal

Running the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) is harder than being Marion County juvenile judge “by a factor of 18,” Jim Payne concedes.

Within days of being tapped by Gov. Mitch Daniels to head the new cabinet-level department, Payne recognized the challenge: Combining 92 county programs with “92 different ways of doing things” into a statewide system with consistent policies for handling child abuse and neglect cases.

The mantra under previous administrations was “counties, do your own thing.” Payne liked that approach as a judge because it gave Marion County more flexibility and power.

As head of DCS, he knew things had to change. All 92 counties needed uniform practices for investigating abuse allegations. Caseworkers needed standard training. Reimbursement policies for service providers had to be clarified.

In many respects, it’s been a no-win situation. Those who advocate family preservation attack Payne for the state’s higher-than-average rate of removing children from homes. Others blame Payne’s department for not acting quickly enough to pluck children from hazardous situations.

Residential treatment facilities say Payne has overlooked their crucial role in the system, forcing some to close their doors. Political opponents say Payne and Daniels have been more concerned with saving money than helping the vulnerable.

This much is clear: It has taken Payne virtually all of Daniels’ two terms in office to launch the institutional reform intended. But reform is taking place.

When Payne took over, child-welfare workers had caseloads of 50 families or more and could go months without seeing their clients. Caseloads have been cut in half and 95 percent of children make face-to-face contact with a caseworker at least once a month.

When Payne took over the state did not have a consistent  “practice model” for family intervention. Now case managers are taught a collaborative approach for working with families in crisis. During initial meetings, parties come together to determine if children can be safely kept at home and what “wraparound” services must be provided to make that happen. When children have to be removed, caseworkers’ first choice is placement with relatives, not foster care with strangers.

Payne’s department hired 800 new caseworkers and trained them using the new model. That took time. It took more time to persuade the provider community to expand family wraparound services and move away from residential treatment centers, such as group homes, which data showed were more costly but less effective than other interventions.

“The resources weren’t out there” to support families, Payne says, especially in rural Indiana.

There’ve been obstacles along the way. Because county property taxes had always funded services, child welfare was treated as a matter of local control. In 2009, the legislature shifted funding to the state. That change, according to one evaluation, “finally completed the job of creating a truly unified, clearly state-administered children and family services system.” But loss of local control alienated veteran staffers, service providers and others used to calling the shots.

A centralized hotline for reporting suspected abuse and neglect, launched in December 2010, drew fire. Critics say cases have fallen through cracks. The DCS says the hotline is more accountable than when “reports of child abuse and neglect were directed to more than 300 different telephone numbers across 92 counties.”

Democrats have attacked DCS for sending money appropriated by the legislature back to the treasury instead of spending it on children. Payne said he didn’t want to “just spend money” on things that didn’t work and was waiting to get the right programs in place before investing in prevention and family preservation.

There’s been high praise from one significant player: the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national philanthropy that has worked closely with the administration on the new practice model. The foundation says Indiana “still has a lot of work to do,” but it’s pleased with the way families are treated and caseloads have fallen.

A looming threat is that when Daniels leaves office there will be pressure from disaffected parties to return to the old way of doing things. That would be the wrong moral to the story. The better lesson is that change in child welfare is hard to do, and it’s not happening fast enough. But it has to happen for the sake of 13,000 children who are wards of the state and those at risk of joining them.

Andrea Neal is adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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