By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – No one says it isn’t true.
I’m talking over the air with state lawmakers, a juvenile court judge and the leader of a children and family services not-for-profit about the letter of resignation Mary Beth Bonaventura, director of the Indiana Department of Child Services, sent Gov. Eric Holcomb at the end of last year.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
The letter was damning.
Bonaventura, a former juvenile court judge appointed director of DCS by Republican Gov. Mike Pence, wrote Holcomb, also a Republican, that Indiana children’s lives were at risk because the DCS wasn’t being run the right way.
She said the lines of authority in the DCS had been blurred, if not eradicated, because the governor’s office had foisted a political appointee on the agency as chief of staff who undermined the director’s authority and cared more about cutting costs than protecting children. She said the cost-cutting efforts hurt longstanding relationships with foster-care parents and other providers who had worked with the state and its children for years and served as an invitation to expensive litigation. She also argued that DCS’s technology was outdated and on the verge of collapse.
During the hour we talk, no one contradicts Bonaventura’s points.
Indiana Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, says he talked with Bonaventura after her resignation. He says she expressed regret the letter had become public – which is curious, given that the resignation of a major agency head always makes news – but he doesn’t contradict her arguments.
Indiana Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, says the legislature adopted policies and procedures for DCS in the past that haven’t been followed. He says that’s the reason the Indiana General Assembly should step in again.
Indiana Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, says a large part of the problem is that poor and vulnerable children have no voice in the political process. They can’t vote in elections and they don’t have the money to hire expensive lobbyists.
Marion County Juvenile Court Judge Marilyn Moores says the child welfare system is “drowning.” She says that, because of the opioid crisis and other stresses, the case load has more than doubled in recent years – from 2,500 children to 5,500 children – and the resources have not kept pace.
Sharon Pierce is president and chief executive officer of the Villages, the state’s largest not-for-profit child and family services agency. Years ago, in Gov. Evan Bayh’s administration, she was deputy director for the Indiana Division of Family and Children.
Pierce says that there always have been challenges associated with the state government’s efforts to protect and help vulnerable children, but that the system now is stretched to breaking – and beyond – at almost every point.
Holdman, Lanane, Delaney, Moores and Pierce also say there are reasons DCS and the protections for Hoosier children are collapsing. They all make sense.
They also offer suggestions to improve the system. Many of these suggestions also make sense.
But no one – no Democratic or Republican lawmaker, no judge, no children’s advocate – says Bonaventura was wrong.
No one says Indiana children aren’t at risk.
No one says Indiana children aren’t dying because we Hoosiers can’t or won’t take care of them.
Gov. Holcomb has vowed to bring in an independent firm to analyze DCS and make recommendations for improving it. He also has pledged to make the review process transparent and issue regular progress reports.
That’s all to the good and doubtless will improve the lives and safety of vulnerable Hoosier children down the line.
But what about now?
What about those children who are at risk at this moment?
What about those children who may die or whose lives may be ruined today, tomorrow or next week?
Deliberation in governing is a virtue, but so is a sense of moral urgency. These children are the most vulnerable among us.
They deserve our protection.
Ed Delaney is right. These kids have no way to move their needs up on the state’s priority list.
They can’t vote, and they don’t have the money to hire lobbying firms.
So, it’s up to the rest of us to speak for them.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.