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Four attorneys out at Department of Child Services as agency looks to improve turnover

Embattled agency working to improve legal division
Posted: 5:54 PM, May 10, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-10 21:57:11Z
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INDIANAPOLIS — Four attorneys are out at the Indiana Department of Child Services, Call 6 Investigates has learned.

DCS Deputy General Counsel Dianna Mejia was terminated on May 2, and Assistant General Counsel for Northern Regions John Shanahan retired the same day, records show.

Becky St. John, Assistant General Counsel for Southern Regions, also resigned on May 2, according to SPD.

And Deputy General Counsel at DCS, Tamara Wilson, resigned her position on March 23, records show.

The State Personnel Department and the Indiana Department of Child Services declined to provide a reason to Call 6 Investigates for the departure of four attorneys within a month and a half.

The embattled agency has been making changes since consultant Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group released its report in summer 2018 , which criticized the agency for its turnover and overwhelming caseloads.

Read the entire CWG report here .

The consultant expressed concern about the legal division at DCS, which provides representation for case-related child welfare legal proceedings.

“DCS should critically assess and take steps to resolve factors that contribute to attorney turnover and lack of expertise in planning and participating in evidentiary hearings,” read the CWG report.

As of May 2018, DCS had 184 attorney positions filled, the number having grown from 123 positions in January 2014, according to the report.

“Turnover and lack of experience in the DCS legal workforce was an issue consistently raised in this review,” read the CWG report. “For some judges, DCS Local Office Directors, supervisors, and case managers, it was considered the most critical need in the agency.

A number of DCS staff in county offices as well as judges and attorneys and others knowledgeable about the legal aspects of child welfare pointed to inadequate pay and training as well as unreasonable workloads as issues contributing to high rates of turnover and
persistent vacancies in the legal division. “

On January 14, DCS announced Jim Luttrull, Jr. as its new deputy general counsel of the litigation division.

Luttrull will focus on reducing attorney turnover, while also advising agency lawyers who are new to working in child welfare, according to a January 14 news release from DCS.

According to a progress report , DCS’s legal department developed a training course focused on Indiana rules of evidence and trial procedure that was implemented as a pilot program in April.

“This is a multi-disciplined training that will include DCS attorneys, family case managers, defense attorneys, court-appointed special advocates/guardian ad litems and judges, training together and practicing their newly learned/refined skills together in a mock
trial setting,” read the progress report.

A month before her resignation, Deputy General Counsel Tamara Wilson testified on February 18 at the Senate Family and Children Services committee regarding adoption subsidies.

PREVIOUS | State budget strips funding for adoption subsidies

Kristi Cundiff, Founder/CEO/Administrator of the Indiana Foster and Adoptive Parents Resources and Advocacy Group IFAAP also testified at the same hearing, and is encouraged to see changes within the DCS legal division.

“I think it was long overdue,” said Cundiff. “I believe this is a step in the right direction for not only the future of the Indiana Department of Child Services but for the future of foster children in Indiana.”

Cundiff said despite widespread problems, some people within DCS have been resistant to change.

“We cannot walk backward into the future,” said Cundiff. “Indiana lawmakers need to protect the futures of the foster children of Indiana.”

Call 6 Investigates is seeking comment from the DCS attorneys who left within the last two months including Mejia, Shanahan, St. John and Wilson.

Sen. David Niezgodski, D-South Bend, sponsored a bill that would provide a mandatory adoption subsidy to Hoosier families.

"What it asked for was 50 percent of mandatory subsidies of what foster parents had been receiving and what adoptive parents would receive," Senator Niezgodski said. "It was in excess of $30 million for the biennium. It was gonna benefit adoptive parents greatly."

The effort failed at the statehouse.