A public relations effort paints the work of Indiana’s child protection agency as among the best in the nation. But under the scrutiny of judges, child advocates, health officials and lawmakers familiar with their work, agency officials issued an almost apologetic response to troubling questions about their performance.
The initial meeting of the Department of Child Services Interim Study Committee last week offered a promising start in changing the increasingly centralized DCS culture. If it results in the agency’s restoring authority to the local child protection workers who best know their communities, the committee’s work will have been worthwhile.
DCS officials offered the first testimony Wednesday, with Director James Payne boasting of the agency’s work even as news of another Indiana child’s death was breaking. Three-year-old Carmen Ellis died Wednesday, and her mother’s boyfriend was arrested on a preliminary charge of murder. A month earlier, DCS had investigated an abuse complaint at her home. The agency confirmed the contact, but cited confidentiality in refusing to release further details.
Carmen is at least the 28th Indiana child to die in the past five years after DCS had been actively involved with the family or contacted with a complaint of abuse or neglect. The numbers suggest the agency’s emphasis on keeping children at home is endangering lives, while complaints about the number of calls the statewide hotline screens out raise questions about how many more situations are never investigated.
Payne’s assertion that child protection services were even worse before his agency was established doesn’t square with the complaints from law and public safety officials involved in the system. In response to a separate inquiry from Republican Sen. Brent Steele, Steuben County Sheriff Tim Troyer offered a written response listing 10 areas of concern. Henry County Judge Mary Geitz Willis wrote that when she called the centralized abuse and neglect hotline to report a suspicious situation, she was first hung up on and then screened out because she did not witness the abuse personally.
Before the legislative study committee’s probing questions, DCS Chief of Staff John Ryan acknowledged problems with the hotline.
We will change, he said, noting a revision of hotline procedures to allow law enforcement officers to contact local DCS officers directly for immediate assistance.
That change, however, wouldn’t seem to have helped Carmen Ellis. The interim study committee asked the right questions at its first session. It should continue to push and to insist on substantive changes that protect Indiana children.