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July 9, 2012

State’s child protection services becomes part of campaign agenda

INDIANAPOLIS — Eight years after Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels made child welfare a campaign issue, the Democrat running to replace him is doing the same.

At a press conference Monday, former House Speaker John Gregg accused the Daniels administration of falling short on promises to protect children from abuse and neglect and said some of the reforms that had been put into place were no longer working because of budget cuts.

“We’ve got to make children a priority in this state,” Gregg said. “We’ve seen tragedy after tragedy ... it’s clear Indiana’s children need more support.”

Gregg and his running mate, state Sen. Vi Simpson of Ellettsville, were sharply critical of the $200 million in budget cuts made to the state’s Department of Child Services during fiscal years 2009 through 2011.

The agency was ordered by the Daniels administration to revert the money back to the general fund as a “surplus” when state revenues were crashing downward because of the recession. Other state agencies were turning back money as well.

“It is wrong, in fact it is dang near reprehensible to me, when people have children getting hurt, falling through the cracks, not getting the care they needed and at the same standpoint we have this agency saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got a surplus’ and they keep sending it back,” Gregg said. “We need to focus on preventive services that can help families stay together.”

Gregg and Simpson said that if elected they’d push for money to support adoption services to reduce the time children are spending in foster care; reinstate preventative mental health services for families with children who are at-risk of neglect or abuse; and create an Office of the Child Advocate to review cases where the system failed to protect children.

Gregg cited the case of a Greensburg boy, Devin Parsons, who was beaten to death on the same day that the Department of Child Services closed its investigations alleging the boy was a victim of neglect and abuse. Gregg said there have been similar cases where children had died after the department had failed to step in.

Department spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland declined to respond to Gregg’s statements, saying it was not appropriate for the agency to comment on political speech. But she did remind reporters that the number of child protection caseworkers is double what it was when Daniels first took office and that the amount of money the state spends overall on training those caseworkers has also gone up significantly.

Eight years ago, then-candidate Daniels targeted Indiana’s child protection system for harsh criticism after federal investigators found that Indiana — along with 15 other states — had failed to meet a single federal standard for child safety and protection.

At the time, Indiana had one of the worst death rates from child abuse and neglect; it was double the national average.

When Daniels came into office, he added an additional 800 caseworkers to handle child abuse and neglect cases and pushed through a series of reforms that centralized child protection services and removed it from what had been a fractured, county-level delivery system.

It’s been a point of pride for him that the number of children who have died because of abuse or neglect dropped more by 50 percent (from 57 deaths to 25 deaths) within five years of making those changes.

But Democrats haven’t given him much credit for those changes. Earlier this year, state House and Senate Democrats called for an investigation of the Department of Child Services amid a series of newspaper reports sharply critical of the department’s screening procedures.

Daniels dismissed the criticism at the time, saying it obscured the progress the state had made in protecting at-risk children. The Associated Press reported that Daniels accused Democrats of “grandstanding” and said the media had misrepresented the issue.

The Indiana General Assembly, though, agreed to establish a legislative study committee to review how the Department of Child Services is working. The committee is expected to start meeting later this summer and into the fall, just as the political campaign season heats up. The study committee will submit a report to the Legislature’s Health Finance Commission, which may contain recommendations for change.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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