By Shelby Mullis and Zoie Richey
INDIANAPOLIS — House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he will name a special legislative council Thursday—the second day of the legislative session—to undertake a review of the Indiana Department of Child Services.
Gov. Eric Holcomb’s administration called for a review of the agency last month after former DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned.
Bonaventura quit after raising concerns about a lack of funding for the agency. In a letter of resignation to Holcomb, Bonaventura said she could no longer stand by and watch Hoosier children “being systemically placed at risk, without the ability to help them.”
Speaker of the House Rep. Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said a primary focus for the session will be to remedy recent issues in the Indiana Department of Child Services. Photo by Erica Irish, TheStatehouseFile.com
She served as director of the agency since 2013 after being appointed by former Gov. Mike Pence. She previously spent 31 years working in the Lake County juvenile system as a referee, magistrate and judge. Holcomb named veteran health professional Terry J. Stigdon to lead the agency last week.
Now, legislators are left to evaluate the current role of the agency, which serves more than 29,000 children across the state—more than Ohio and Illinois combined, Bosma said.
The Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group began its review of Indiana’s agency Wednesday.
The group has conducted similar projects in 20 other states. In Indiana, it has been asked to assess:
- Are systems in place to assure that children and families are healthy and safe?
- Is funding being utilized in the most appropriate ways to best serve children and taxpayers?
- Are caseloads appropriate for staffing levels? What staffing adjustments should be made?
- Are DCS program outcomes appropriate for services provided to Indiana children and families?
- How do Indiana’s case load numbers, costs and program outcomes compare to other states and the nation?
The assessment is expected to be complete and delivered to the governor and the new director in spring.
“I think it’s best for these experts to dive in, give some recommendations and then we can act on them,” Bosma said. “We added $600 million—well over half a billion dollars—to the DCS budget just this biennium. So it’s not a money issue.”
But he also believes lawmakers need to examine whether further legislation is needed to address issues in DCS.
The conversation spilled into the Senate Wednesday with leaders of both parties voicing their concerns on the issue.
“There is no more urgent or important matter than the protection of our children,” said Sen. Tim Lanane. “The legislature must investigate how we are funding the Department of Child Services to ensure our children are adequately cared for.”
Senate President Pro Tem David Long said the state has experienced “never-ending problems” with DCS in his 22 years in the Senate.
“There has never been a year when we didn’t have issues, difficult issues, dealing with the DCS,” Long said. “This isn’t anything new, but it is something we’ve got to get fixed.”
House Democratic Leader Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Austin, greets legislators as they reconvene for the 2018 legislative session Wednesday. Photo by Erica Irish, TheStatehouseFile.com
Lawmakers also used the first day of the 2018 legislative session to introduce their parties’ agendas.
Rep. Terry Goodin, the new House minority leader, said he and his fellow House Democrats will make it a priority to establish an independent redistricting commission to bring fairness to elections.
“We will live to our promise to make changes in the state’s hugely flawed election system,” said Goodin, D-Austin.
Advocates for redistricting reform greeted lawmakers Wednesday with doughnuts—a hearty start to the 2018 legislative session, all with the hope of swaying legislators’ opinions in favor of reform. They want a nonpartisan commission to draw legislative district boundaries following the 2020 census.
Legislators also reiterated their push for additional tools in fighting the opioid crisis.
“This really must include an expansion of mental health services,” Goodin said. “Will it take more money? Maybe. Or, perhaps, will it require us to actually use all the money we budgeted for this mission rather than returning it back to the state surplus?”
Shelby Mullis and Zoie Richey are reporters for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.