INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana caseworkers charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect will get a pay raise this week.
It is the most significant step so far by the administration since 20 recommendations were released in June following an analysis of the troubled Department of Child Services.
At that time, Gov. Eric Holcomb made $25 million in additional funding available to DCS, which has seen skyrocketing caseloads and internal battles.
DCS spokeswoman Noelle Russell said $22 million has been spent to raise the salaries of front-line staff to bring them into alignment with those paid to child welfare workers in other states.
The boost to base pay hits Wednesday and will impact more than 3,600 DCS employees, or 87 percent of the agency's staff.
But there is still much work to be done.
“I haven't seen any big changes yet. I think it's still a work in progress,” said Judge Charles Pratt, who oversees Allen Superior Court's Family Relations Division. “There are still extraordinary challenges we are facing as a community.”
The number of Indiana children who need protection has risen in recent years to almost 34,000 and the agency has struggled to keep pace despite hiring hundreds of caseworkers. That has resulted in overworked employees, high turnover and financial challenges.
Former DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned in December, blasting Holcomb for budget decisions and policy that will “all but ensure children will die.” She said Holcomb allowed her agency to request only a fraction of the funding and staffing needed to protect children.
As a result, Holcomb hired the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group to review the agency. Their report found only three states have more referrals, and Indiana's rate of children in care is 13 per 1,000 children compared with a national average of 5.6. About 45 percent of the state's caseworkers also don't meet the maximum caseload law.
It made 20 recommendations to overhaul the agency – and the agency has been busy responding. Here are some examples:
• DCS has hired a net gain of 44 supervisors and 30 attorneys, along with Associate Director Todd Meyer, whose job is to monitor implementation of recommendations and changes.
• The agency has launched two advisory councils, one composed of family case managers and one composed of their supervisors, to give on-the-ground staff a voice in developing agency policy and practice. This is key in moving toward decentralization and empowering field staff.
• One critical hire expected in the next few weeks is the deputy chief financial officer for Medicaid initiatives. The hope is to make better use of federal Medicaid funding to help some of the children and families in the system.
• $1 million has been tapped to support new foster parent recruiting, retention and training programs, an effort to strengthen current foster families and find more Hoosiers willing to open their homes.
• DCS is hiring new resource and adoptive parent training employees to educate and guide foster parents.
• The agency is hiring 14 additional foster care licensing specialists to recruit and retain even more families; and is creating a position to act as a liaison between the agency and foster families across the state.
Legislative changes could come in January when the session starts – such as adjusting the legal definition of neglect and extending the assessment time limit for families. And the funding for the agency will be decided.
The report found that court oversight is necessary when children cannot be made safe at home and in selected other situations when families can't be voluntarily engaged to work toward the changes needed to protect children.
But the report said court involvement isn't required to help children and suggested reducing how often the justice system is involved in neglect cases.
Pratt said he is worried there is too much focus on numbers rather than addressing the needs of children and families.
He is concerned about the rising mantra that judges are too involved. Without that, parents don't have due process with appointed attorneys and children don't have guardians and advocates watching out for them.
“I'm concerned we are moving in a trend where the child becomes less in the center,” Pratt said. “The child's voice needs to be heard.”