INDIANAPOLIS — The director of the Indiana Department of Child Services calls a class action lawsuit “puzzling” and “misleading” in a newly released statement Monday.
The agency had previously said it would not comment on litigation, but on Monday it released a two page statement and video in response to the lawsuit filed Tuesday against Governor Eric Holcomb, the Indiana Department of Child Services and DCS Director Terry Stigdon, alleging Indiana is failing in its duty to protect more than 22,000 children in the state’ child welfare system.
“The timing of this filing is puzzling, considering the significant strides our agency has made since we publicly took responsibility for our shortcomings one year ago. I want Hoosiers to know I take the concerns of all the children and families we serve very seriously,” said Stigdon. “It is easy to cherry-pick our most challenging cases to support a narrative suggesting this is every child’s experience, when in reality, the average number of homes a foster child lives in while in DCS care is 2.”
More than 14,300 Indiana children are currently receiving care outside of the home, including with foster families.
The lawsuit alleges Indiana consistently fails to protect children by placing them in inappropriate, unstable, or overly restrictive settings and failing to provide meaningful case management resulting in delayed or no services and little oversight of children.
“While I cannot comment on the details of pending litigation, I feel it is important to assure our communities of our commitment to protecting Indiana’s most vulnerable children,” said Stigdon. “In that vein, there are some recent changes in our agency that are critical to highlight – and keep in mind this is hardly an all-inclusive list. Our agency has undergone a transformation since I stepped into this position 18 months ago.”
Stigdon pointed to the following “highlights”:
A downward trend in the number of children in foster care and residential placements as we focus on providing the right care to the right child at the right time;
The extension of services for older youth from 21 years of age to 23;
Better support for foster families, including new staff members dedicated to connecting those caregivers to much-needed resources, and the creation of a web portal to funnel information to foster parents about the children in their care;
• A change in policy allowing staff the necessary time they need to complete thorough assessments of allegations of abuse or neglect;
• Improvement of our supervisor to family case manager ratio from 1:7.3 to a more manageable 1:5.5, which ensures that the decision-making is collaborative and the best for the families we serve;
• A more manageable caseload for our family case managers and attorneys, so each child receives the individualized attention they deserve;
• An increase in salaries for employees that better recognizes the complex work they perform on a daily basis;
• An 18 percent drop in staff turnover, which over time will lead to fewer disruptions in child placements and a decreased rate of repeat maltreatment and consistency in case management from family case managers who are focused on building trust-based relationships;
• A positive workplace environment recognized by the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute for the agency’s shift from the culture of fear to one of support and safety; and, finally,
• The creation of a robust training division for our courtroom lawyers to ensure we represent children to the best of our ability.
“Put frankly, DCS is simply not the agency it used to be, and continuing to rely on an outdated inflammatory account is misleading and harmful to children and their families,” said Stigdon.
The plaintiffs allege state officials have been aware of the problems within DCS for a long time, and that many children are suffering from emotional and physical trauma due to the state’s failing child welfare system.
In December 2017, then DCS director Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned to Governor Eric Holcomb, warning that Indiana officials were placing children at risk “in ways that all but ensure children will die.”
A 2018 audit from the Child Welfare Consulting Group criticized the agency’s disorganization.
DCS has touted changes it has made since the 2018 audit, including a 17 percent decrease in total cases since January 2018 and a 14 percent decrease in out-of-home placements.
Staff turnover is down 18 percent, according to DCS, and has reduced attorney caseloads by adding 25 positions since January 2019, according to the DCS website.
The lawsuit alleges DCS appears to focus more on improving its statistics, by failing to properly investigate allegations or sending children home too quickly and without necessary services.
The plaintiffs hope to prompt Indiana to transform its foster care system, including by making sure DCS has enough properly trained caseworkers to meet the needs of foster children.
Nine children filed the lawsuit, representing a class of 22,000 children who are in DCS custody, as well as an ADA subclass of thousands of children with disabilities who became a ward of DCS.
The names of the children are not identified in the lawsuit.