By Olivia Ober
A legislative group charged with evaluating issues at the Department of Child Services - including its controversial abuse hotline - is expected to begin its work in the coming weeks.
But no date has been set for an initial meeting and one member is questioning whether the group will ever convene at all.
Already, the August legislative calendar is packed full of legislative committees meeting about autism, pensions, education, the state fair and economic development.
But Rep. Cindy Noe, an Indianapolis Republican who is co-chairing the Department of Child Services Study Committee, said no date has been picked for the group to get underway. She said she needs to talk with her co-chair - Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle - about setting the date soon, in part because she wants to reserve the Indiana House floor to accommodate larger crowds at the meetings.
The General Assembly earlier this year charged the committee with a long list of DCS issues to consider.
"It's very expansive and people might connect with a different portion of that charge than another person," Noe said. "By the time you connect people with any portion of that charge, you will have a very sizable group. Also, during the session, people are very interested in this topic and how we address it."
But Rep. Vanessa Summers, an Indianapolis Democrat appointed to the study committee, said she's concerned the group won't meet at all, especially because no date has been set yet.
And Summers said that even if the group does meet, she's concerned that the most important issues will not be addressed.
"Republicans are putting this together to be a showcase for DCS and not to discuss what the real issues are," Summers said.
Democrats raised issues about DCS earlier this year after a series of news stories accused the agency of failing its mission. Some of those stories questioned whether the agency had done enough to protect children in households where abuse allegations had already been made and others said that a call center opened in 2010 was screening out legitimate abuse complaints.
Republicans agreed to create a study committee to address the issues and charged the group with making recommendations before the 2013 legislative session. Its membership includes lawmakers, judges and others involved in the juvenile system.
The committee plans to discuss a list of issues that includes the hotline questions as well as how to better serve at-risk children and children with mental illnesses.
Senate Democrats also say they plan to use the committee to investigate why "child abuse tragedies continue in families known to DCS" and how budget cuts might be keeping it from being as effective as it could be.
Democrats also expressed concern about the amount of control that's been taking away from local DCS offices and given to the state hotline center.
DCS officials said earlier this year that since the call center was first launched in 2010, the agency has increased its number of annual investigations from over 56,000 to just over 76,000.
Still, WTHR, an Indianapolis TV station, reported earlier this year that DCS workers were screening out significantly more abuse and neglect reports, which means they don't meet the threshold of investigation they did before the call centers.
"The way that the call center is ran, judges and prosecutors cannot directly call DCS," Summers said of the hotline. "Their hands are tied and they cannot do what is best for that child in that moment."
DCS spokesperson Stephanie McFarland said the agency will attend and provide information to the committee. Officials will be making sure all the "facts are put on the table for full and fair review," she said, because there are issues in agency that have needed to be addressed for nearly four decades that now have an opportunity to come to light.
"The sessions will give (legislators) a great opportunity to look at that information and evaluate performance over the past few years and where it is going to go in the future," McFarland said. This is "an opportunity to get facts out on the table and... to essentially find solutions for issues that have been in Indiana for a number of years."
DCS officials said this week that the agency is concerned about the turnover rate among its case managers, which will likely be an issue the study committee takes up.
DCS is required to ensure workers maintain no more than 12 assessments or on-going cases at a time, which is down from the more than 40 maintained cases per worker in 2003. But that could be tough given the turnover rate, which is now more than over 19 percent. Last year, it was roughly 17 percent in the 2011 fiscal year.
DCS Chief of Staff John Ryan said the career of a social worker can be emotionally draining and exhausting, which increases the turnover rate.
"The turnover numbers are not as good as we would like," Ryan said. "Our case managers take their roles very seriously, but we're learning that the intense outside scrutiny on individual workers is taking its toll, especially on morale and longevity."
But DCS has continued to move forward with new initiatives even as the study committee has been preparing to meet.
In late June, DCS announced the reallocation of more than $37.8 million over the next three years to enhance existing programs and $10 million more to aid programs that help children, families and older foster youth.
At the time, Rep. Gail Riecken, an Evansville Democrat who will serve on the study committee, said she thought the moves could be beneficial. But she said she was concerned that DCS was not addressing the core issues that the study committee intended to discuss.
She wondered why DCS would make the changes before the committee finalized its recommendations.
But Noe said this week DCS is "moving in a positive direction" with the changes.
"What I do sense is at the very heart of DCS, they are all about doing what is right for these children who had a rough start in life," Noe said "I believe they did what was in their authority."
Olivia Ober is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.
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