Committee hears good, mostly bad about child abuse hotline

By Lesley Weidenbener
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – Hoosiers who have worked inside and outside the state’s child abuse hotline told a study committee Wednesday that the system is broken and needs to be improved to save the lives of children.

Teresa Etchison of Madison County teared up Wednesday as she told a legislative study committee that the state should act to fix its system of investigating abuse and neglet complaints. She told the committee that her 3-year-old great niece died after a drug overdose and the girl’s three siblings are now in foster care but may be reunited with their mother. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com.

During more than three hours of testimony, members of Department of Child Services Interim Study Committee heard from:

  • A former supervisor at the state’s child abuse hotline who said morale at the operation is so low that staff can’t adequately do their jobs.
  • A woman who is trying to stop the Department of Child Services from giving custody of her great nieces and nephews back to their drug-addicted parents.
  • A couple who said their 5-month-old grandchild was given back to her parents even though they’d failed to pass drug tests and attend court-ordered rehab and meetings.
  • A child advocate who said that DCS problems have been ongoing for decades without an in-depth study of issues there.

“Put simply, the power of DCS exceeds its expertise,” said Carole Davis of Evansville, a volunteer child advocate. “DCS is broken.”

The General Assembly has charged the 20-member committee – which includes lawmakers, judges, and others involved in the system – with reviewing the Department of Child Services’ work and considering complaints about its hotline and other services.

DCS officials spoke at a previous committee meeting where they acknowledged that the system could be improved. And Gov. Mitch Daniels said last month that nothing has been more important in his administration than protecting children.

“But you can always get better,” he said. “We’ll always chase that elusive zero, which is to say that not a single child in Indiana is harmed. You can always get better.”

Wednesday’s meeting was focused largely on the hotline, which is operated out of a centralized call center the state began implementing in 2010. Previously, abuse and neglect calls went directly to county DCS offices.

Viola Taliaferro, left, and Anita Harden listened Wednesday to testimony about problems with the state’s child abuse hotline. The women are members of a legislative study committee that is investigating the Department of Child Services, which operates the hotline. Photo by Lesley Weidenbneer, TheStatehouseFile.com. (This caption has been corrected from an earlier version.)

Some police and local prosecutors have complained that the call center is not as responsive as local offices. And they say that the staff there don’t know the families involved and don’t always make good judgments.

Bedford Police Major Robert Herr said he had those concerns initially. But he DCS is now piloting some changes in Lawrence County that give police the authority to call a local, on-call caseworker for emergencies involving abuse. And all the cases that the call center determines don’t need an investigation are forwarded to a county team for review.

“Initially, I was absolutely against the hotline,” Herr said. “But with the changes – and the ability for law enforcement to get a hold of a supervisor or on call case manager and the ability to review the screenouts – I think it’s headed in the right direction.”

But Amber Turientine of Indianapolis is a former supervisor at the call center, and said management and morale problems at the call center must be solved for staff to be able to do their jobs effectively.

She said the center’s bosses played favorites, had outside relationships with some staff members, and partied after hours with workers. She said supervisors encouraged staff to bully some workers. The problems led to high turnover, making it difficult for supervisors to keep up with training for new workers.

Bedford Police Major Robert Herr told a legislative study committee that changes that the Department of Child Services has made as part of a pilot program in Lawrence County has helped to make a centralized child abuse hotline more effective. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com.

“It created a very negative environment,” she said.

Still, Turientine said she believes in the concept of a statewide call center because she said it helps those who report abuse to remain anonymous and it standardizes the system.

Others who testified Wednesday talked about their own experiences with the hotline and DCS.

Donna and Rob Baxter of Schererville appeared before the committee to talk about what they called the state’s “lax approach” to protecting children. Donna Baxter said their drug-addicted daughter gave birth at home to a baby who was also addicted and had other health problems. DCS removed the child from her care and let her go home with the Baxters for five months, where her grandmother said she flourished.

“But she was returned back to the same danger,” Donna Baxter said, even though the girl’s parents skipped drug tests and did not attend drug rehab and other classes ordered by the court.

Teresa Etchison of Madison County cried as she talked about her 3-year-old great niece who died after ingesting drugs. The state took the girl’s three siblings away from their mother and put them in foster care.

Etchison said she’s been fighting to bring them to her home but DCS staff won’t give her any information. Meanwhile, she said, the state is preparing to send them back to their mother.

“I’ve waited 18 months to say this out loud to the legislature and state of Indiana,” Etchison said emotionally. “Fix your system.”

Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

The caption in the second photo above has been corrected from its original version, which misidentified one of the committee members. The member on the right is Anita Harden. TheStatehouseFile.com regrets the error.
You can track all our corrections by visiting our corrections page at http://thestatehousefile.com/info/corrections/.
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