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(INDIANAPOLIS) – An independent review of the Department of Child Services has produced 20 recommendations to make the agency function better, and Governor Holcomb is vowing to carry out all 20.

The nonprofit Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group says DCS is stretched thin because it’s trying to do too much. The group says Indiana sends an “exceptionally high” rate of child welfare cases to court. It says Indiana could expedite cases, and use caseworkers’ time more productively, by making drug treatment the first option for parents with drug problems. Drugs are a factor in more than half of DCS cases.

The group also recommends narrowing the definition of a child’s “caregiver,” a definition which dictates which allegations are required to go to court, and rethinking a requirement that every case get a written assessment. Former Alabama child-welfare director Paul Vincent says caseworkers’ duties are swollen by people calling in reports they’ve seen on television, sometimes with no connection to Indiana.

Holcomb asked the group to conduct a six-month review of DCS after a scathing resignation letter from former director Mary Beth Bonaventura, who charged belt-tightening at the agency was putting children’s lives in danger. The report is the sixth outside audit in five years, and the second under Holcomb, to recommend changes at DCS.

Holcomb has named Boone County Prosecutor Todd J. Meyer assistant director at DCS. Meyer won’t be part of day-to-day operations — he’ll be in charge of carrying out the group’s recommendations. Holcomb says he intends to implement all 20, nearly half of which were part of last year’s report or the four issued during Mike Pence’s governorship.

Holcomb says he’ll immediately spend 25-million dollars from the state surplus on raises to try to reduce 30-percent turnover at the agency. The review says that turnover has contributed in some counties to frayed relations with local courts who get frustrated when newly assigned caseworkers aren’t prepared. The report recommends a greater emphasis on internal promotions to give workers a reason to stay at the agency.

And the agency says its interviews found a “culture of fear” among caseworkers who worry any procedural misstep will lead to a disciplinary writeup. The report says that’s a common problem in child-welfare agencies across the country, but says it gets in the way of carrying out the agency’s mission. Vincent says agency leaders need to make clear they’ll support caseworkers as long as they’re not grossly negligent.

Terry Stigdon, who replaced Bonaventura as director in January, says she’s made a point of meeting with caseworkers around the state face-to-face to try to convey that message.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane (D-Anderson) says he’s “encouraged” by the report, and House Minority Leader Terry Goodin (D-Austin) credits Holcomb with an apparent willingness to act on the recommendations. But both say the legislature needs to take an active role in making sure the report doesn’t sit on a shelf like its predecessors.

Department of Child Services director Terry Stigdon (left) with Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group consultant Sue Steib (Photo: Eric Berman/WIBC)