DCS under scrutiny at Statehouse

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — In three meetings over the last three months, dozens stepped to the microphone to criticize Indiana’s Department of Child Services as deficient and outdated—particularly on its child abuse hotline.

Now, lawmakers debating problems with the system are at odds over how to improve it.

The 20-member DCS Interim Study Committee met Thursday to begin wading through the testimony of more than 80 people. Out of those comments, Committee Chairman Sen. Travis Holdman (R-Markle) identified 40 recommendations that were up for the committee’s debate.

At the top of the list is a recommendation to create a permanent “DCS Oversight Committee.”

“We'll be able to advise the department,” Holdman said of the idea. “It gives us a link between the department itself, the public and also the legislature, so that legislators that would be involved would know if we need to fix this with a legislative fix, and we don't have to have an interim study committee to study a specific issue.”

The proposal garnered bi-partisan support among the committee’s other members as well.

“I think it just puts more accountability on the department, which all departments need to have in state government, and at the same time be more responsive to the public and public concern,” he said.

But, that’s where much of the committee’s agreement stops.

When it comes to the state’s child abuse and neglect hotline, there seems to be a polarizing divide.

In testimony delivered Thursday, new DCS Director John Ryan said the average call to the hotline is now answered in under two minutes, and less than five percent of the 160,000 calls the agency receives each year are classified as “long wait time.”

“We used to have more than 300 phone lines around the state. You had to figure out which one to call if you wanted to report child abuse or neglect. Now, we have one centralized hotline and it's fully staffed, 24/7/365, and it has supervision all around the clock. That is happening now. There are 74 intake specialists now, and they take every one of those calls seriously,” DCS spokesperson Stephanie McFarland told 24-Hour News 8.

WEB EXTRA | DCS Recommendations and details on the recommendations

But, during the committee’s earlier hearings, parents, providers and others told stories of long wait times, unprofessional operators and cases that were ignored.

Some called that unacceptable.

“We want to make sure that whatever we put out there is going to be working and fixes the system,” Sen. Tim Lanane (D-Anderson) told 24-Hour News 8. “It's too important of a system to have problems.”

But, ask how to fix those problems and you’ll hear loads of disagreement—enough to spark a spat between Holdman and Rep. Vanessa Summers (D-Indianapolis) during Thursday’s meeting.

Republicans are pushing what they call a "hybrid" plan . It would modify the existing central hotline in Indianapolis by adding 50 new intake specialists, decreasing hold times, Holdman said. All reports by “professionals”—like doctors, social workers and police officers—would be reviewed and assessed by the agency. This would result in an additional 15,000 assessments each year, DCS said. In addition, a new localized hotline would be created for those “professionals.” Calls would be answered at each of the 18 regional DCS offices between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. Calls outside of those hours would revert back to the central hotline.

“52 percent of all the calls that come into the hotline come from what we classify as community professionals. Those are school teachers, school social workers, medical professionals, law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, mental health therapists, and others. 52 percent of the calls come from those folks. With those calls, we have a very high substantiation rate for those calls that are coming in. Those calls are what we consider good calls that we need to act upon.”

Of the other 48 percent, Holdman said 18 percent are from anonymous callers.

“Those have a very low substantiation rate. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re bad calls, but what we're trying to do is to maximize the professionals' time,” Holdman said.

Asked if he could support that plan, Lanane said it could at least be the basis for a compromise.

“Only 10 percent of the calls come after 11pm. So, there might be a system that would work where between 11p.m. and 8 a.m., that 10 percent of calls would go to some centralized system. But, they have to be handled well. For me, local control over this hotline is the most efficient and effective way to go. I understand there has to be a cost benefit analysis here, and that's exactly what I want to get to,” he said.

Holdman estimates the “hybrid approach for a “part time” local hotline for professionals would cost the state around $20 million per year.

Other hybrid options on the table include having local police officers answering hotline calls during off hours. That sparked disagreement over required training and additional costs.

But, other Democrats on the committee say part time isn’t enough.

“I have a problem with a centralized hotline. I believe that in local communities they know how to take care of their local folks. And, I think it should go back to local control. I believe there would not be lag times on the phone. I believe judges, school teachers, social workers, hospital workers would have a better advantage of being able to get help for that child. Taking it out of Indianapolis is the best thing to do,” Summers said.

Republicans argue the cost of a fully local system could require more than 1,000 new work staff and could cost the state more than $57 million per year.

For Summers, that misses the point.

“We fix the system and then we worry about how to pay,” she said. “We want everybody to be thinking of the safety and best interest of the child, period.”

“What's at stake is what's crucial here, because we are talking about protection of children and possibly even lives of children,” Lanane agreed. “I think it's an investment that we should make for the state of Indiana to protect our children.”

Asked what it might take to find common ground and make a recommendation to the General Assembly, Holdman shook his head.

“I don't think the committee is going to be able to recommend. We have a divided house here on this issue. So, I really think we're going to be looking at a majority and minority report, or just two concepts not in the form of any legislative draft, which we present to the legislators,” he said.

For now, the call for a final agreement remains unanswered.

“We used to be able to collaborate. I wish that was the case. But, I don't see that happening with our chairman.”

The committee is set to meet for the final time on November 27.

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