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Advocates Worried About Timing Of DCS Caseload Study

Indiana's Department of Child Services isn't meeting the legal requirements for the number of cases its workers can take on.

They would need 77 additional family case managers to comply with the law.

But instead of asking legislators for money to hire more workers, DCS is conducting an internal workload study.

While DCS officials say the study will result in better services in the long-term, some advocates are worried about the welfare of children.

Volunteer Advocates See Impact Of Increasing Caseloads

The walls at Monroe County CASA are covered with dozens of photos.

The frames display the faces of people who volunteer their time as court appointed special advocates.

"We are a non-profit organization that recruits, trains and supervises volunteers who advocate for the best interests for the children – the children who are in the court system because they've been abused or neglected," says Monroe County CASA Executive Director Kristin Bishay. "The advocates are the ones out there doing the work, doing the field work."

Volunteers spend a lot of time outside of the CASA offices, taking books and toys to the children they advocate for, hoping to make traumatizing situations a little bit easier. They also do research and collect data to help them determine what's best for the kids.

And they work closely with DCS.

We're losing CASA volunteers because they get so extremely frustrated with the system.

-Kristin Bishay, Executive Director of Monroe County CASA

"When the kids are a ward of the state, DCS case managers are the ones that basically run the case," Bishay says. "And, our CASAs have to have direct contact on a very regular basis with DCS to make sure that everything's going smoothly, to share ideas, to share information."

But what many volunteers have seen lately is troubling – DCS caseworkers are overworked.

Bishay says she doesn't know a caseworker who logs fewer than 60 or 70 hours per week.

And she says it's having an impact on kids.

"We're losing CASA volunteers because they get so extremely frustrated with the system. And, they see so much of what needs to happen with a child for a case to move forward and no matter what they do, they just can't get it done. And, it frustrates them to the point that they leave."

DCS Officials Hope Study Reveals Long-term Solution

DCS has come under a lot of fire the past few years.

Former DCS Director James Payne resigned in 2012 from his position after he was accused of intervening in a case involving his grandchildren.

That same year, the legislature formed an oversight committee to address complaints about how DCS handles cases and its lack of preventative services.

Mary Beth Bonaventura took over as the executive director of DCS in 2013.

She says this most recent controversy over caseloads is one she's taking seriously.

"We thought as a team that it was prudent of us to really study our case loads, our work load versus case load," Bonaventura says. "We are doing things somewhat different than we did when the case load standard was established in 2005. And, so, we decided to find somebody who could help us with that caseload since we're not the experts in figuring that piece out."

I'll go forward and go to the end of the earth to make sure we get what we need to keep kids safe.

-Mary Beth Bonaventura, DCS Director

Bonaventura says over the past two years, DCS has added 246 family case managers.

She hopes the study will reveal a more long-term solution to the increasing workloads caseworkers are facing.

In 2009, the DCS hotline fielded 109,000 calls. Last year, that number almost doubled.

"We're hoping, and the goal is and the contract is with Deloit, that their study will be done March 15, which is before the end of the legislative session," she says. "And, the goal is that if we need them then I'll go forward and go to the end of the earth to make sure we get what we need to keep kids safe."

Legislators Could Face Obstacles Funding Any Recommendations

But Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, is worried about the timing of the study because the state is crafting it's biannual budget now.

He estimates it would cost $7 million to $8 million to hire an additional 77 workers.

"If that study determines we need to have 77 additional case workers, as we feel is the case, certainly we're going to have to make that a priority in the budget," Lanane says. "I hope we're going to be able to do so at that time. I'm going to be the loudest voice out there to insist that will be the case."

Lanane also wants to have plenty of time to examine the results of the study.

He wants to make sure its recommendations are about what's best for children – not what's best for the bottom line.

"It's always well worth scrutinizing what's the data show? What's the hard, empirical evidence out there as to what is a safe number? But, that's got to be key – what are the safe numbers? Not just, what can we get by with? What's efficient in terms of dollars – it's what is the safe number?"

Back at Monroe County CASA, Bishay doesn't know how caseworkers will manage in the meantime.

She says the issues with DCS can't be solved at the local level. So, she hopes legislatures will take a hard look at what's going on and fight for more family case managers.

"It's as important as life and death," Bishay says. "They are there to protect the child. And, to offer services for the families. And, so literally if they don't do their job well, it could mean death of a child or more harm to a child."

Once the study is complete, DCS will determine whether to request additional funding.

That money wouldn't become available until the next fiscal year begins July 1.

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