Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Monday he’ll spend $25 million from the state’s surplus to help implement an independent evaluator’s recommended changes for the Department of Child Services.
Action on those changes comes after years of the state ignoring previous recommendations for the embattled agency.
The Holcomb administration hired an independent investigator to evaluate DCS after former director Mary Beth Bonaventura’s resignation letter accused Holcomb of putting children’s lives at risk.
Some of the challenges identified by the evaluator’s report: overburdened and underpaid workers, too many children in foster care, not enough DCS attorneys, and a high rate of reported abuse and neglect.
Holcomb says the immediate $25 million infusion will begin to address some issues – including better pay for DCS workers. But the Republican governor won’t say whether more money is needed.
“As you improve in one area that can draw down costs in another area, and it’s synchronizing all of those actions that makes this one of the most challenging jobs on the face of the planet,” Holcomb says.
Stigdon says DCS will have hired more than 500 new caseworkers by August. And she says the agency will invest more into mental health services for its employees.
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Holcomb also says half of the recommendations were in past reports but not implemented by previous administrations. State Rep. Ed DeLaney (D-Indianapolis) says he’s encouraged to see action now.
“This is the sixth report, the third governor – maybe all will come true. Maybe we will be at the quote ‘Next Level,’” DeLaney says.
Holcomb also announced DCS hired Boone County Prosecutor Todd Meyer to develop and implement a plan based on the evaluator’s recommendations.
“Other states who are very successful at this [have] someone focused every single day on actually making sure that these recommendations get implemented,” Holcomb says.
The department could also undergo significant changes after the evaluator reported what DCS employees call a “culture of fear.”
The report says some DCS caseworkers think they cannot or should not request services and feel overscrutinized by the agency’s central office. It also says employees say their supervisors are cautioned against awarding too many high job performance ratings in an effort to save money on pay raises. The evaluator notes it cannot confirm that, but says only 9 percent of DCS employees were rated in the top two performance categories.
The evaluator also recommends structural changes to the agency. For example, it suggests the state’s caseload requirements – how many cases DCS workers should handle at once – should be redefined. The agency has never met its caseload standards but DCS Director Terry Stigdon says adjusting the definition isn’t about ensuring the state finally meets those requirements.
“It’s to make sure that we are able to look at caseloads that is considered the best way to look at caseloads in child welfare,” Stigdon says.
The evaluator also says Indiana’s definition of neglect is broad – essentially, some children go into the DCS system who don’t need to. Ed DeLaney says he’s not sure that’s a necessary change.
“What are we trying to do? Have we been too generous to our children in defining what’s neglect and too broad in determining who should be held responsible for neglect? I would hope we haven’t,” DeLaney says.
Changes to caseload standards and the definition of neglect would require legislative action. Legislative leadership will meet July 2 to discuss the report. And there’s a study committee assigned to explore issues at DCS in the coming months.
Read the complete report below: