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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ind. Gov't. - Indianapolis Star and South Bend Tribune investigate child abuse reporting and its followup

Another child death, this one powerfully chronicled today in the Indianapolis Star by Tim Evans, in a story headed "Numerous reports preceded Devin Parsons’ death." As I read the story, I recalled a number of other, similar stories focusing on children's deaths in other parts of the state.

An interactive graphic accompanying today's story links to those and other cases. The intro:

In the last five years, at least 23 Hoosier children with ties to the Indiana Department of Child Services have died despite efforts to protect them. In some cases, the children or their families were involved in open cases with the department. In others, the children or families had been involved in recently closed cases. And in still others, the children or their families had been the subject of recent reports of abuse or neglect.
I quickly located the cases of Christian Choate of Gary (some ILB entries)and Kalab Lay of Evansville (some ILB entries).

In a long investigative report today, headed "Could deaths of Indiana children have been prevented? Investigation raises questions about whether Department of Child Services could have done more to protect kids," Evans writes:

Before each of these children died last year, concerns about their care and treatment were reported -- repeatedly, in some cases -- to the state agency responsible for investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect.

In some cases, DCS determined the allegations did not merit an investigation. In others, the agency opened investigations but was unable to make contact with the family or found no problems -- case closed. And in two of the deaths, DCS had open cases at the time the children were killed.

But in each case -- and despite evidence of mounting trouble -- DCS ultimately left the children with their parents.

The 2011 fatalities uncovered by The Indianapolis Star raise questions about the quality of the agency's investigations and safety assessments, as well as with the services provided to struggling families.

It is not child deaths alone, however, that suggest lingering problems. There are other troubling indicators that the system is still failing too many Hoosier children:

The rate at which children suffer repeat abuse or neglect within six months of a DCS intervention -- a telling and nationally recognized measure -- remains basically unchanged from 2004 at about 8 percent. The federal government has a target standard of 5.4 percent, which 27 states met in 2010. Twelve states had a higher re-abuse rate than Indiana.

Despite a significant increase in the number of reports made to DCS, the agency is investigating a smaller percentage of the reports it receives -- and it is substantiating a smaller percentage of the cases that are investigated.

Altogether, the issues raise serious questions about the ambitious and costly reform project initiated in 2005 by Gov. Mitch Daniels to fix Indiana's long-troubled child welfare system and protect vulnerable children.

Despite hiring nearly 800 new field workers, setting caseload limits and expanding training, it is not clear that children involved with DCS are any safer now than they were before the overhaul.

Last Sunday Virginia Black and Mary Kate Malone of the South Bend Tribune had a long story on another victim, Tramelle Sturgis. (ILB entry here) that parallels today's Star report. The Tribune team continues its investigation in today's paper with another long story, this one headed "Child abuse reports now funneled through Indy." The story looks at the "screen-out" rate of the new centralized system:
In 2010, DCS centralized its child abuse hot line to a single call center in Indianapolis. Rather than county departments fielding their own calls, as they had for years, all callers are now routed to Indianapolis, where an intake specialist decides whether the allegation merits an investigation.

The centralization, which was gradually rolled out in 2010, making 2011 the first full year of all calls going to Indianapolis, has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of calls “screened out” statewide. * * *

The call center is staffed 24/7 with 62 intake specialists, who ask callers for details about the child, parents, their home and family life. They also ask about medical, criminal and CPS history, whether other children might be at risk, and pages of other questions to determine whether the child is in serious danger.

Calls that are deemed to merit an investigation are forwarded to the appropriate local office. The rest are “screened out.”

[ILB: This is apparently where your complaints end up now if you report child abuse from anywhere in the state. Recall the earlier ILB Penn State entries from Nov. 11 and Nov. 12, 2011.]

Before the centralized call center, counties varied widely in their screen-out rates, [DCS Director James Payne] says, to the detriment of children who needed help. One county might have investigated 80 percent of its calls, while another investigated close to zero, he said.

Also, a local call center might have become so familiar with false reports from a particular caller that they dismissed the allegation even when it was legitimate.

A centralized call center, Payne says, eliminates that risk by streamlining the intake process with “independent” intake specialists.

“Hoosier children ought to be treated the same, rather than the wide discrepancy we saw in the past and without the bias that may have occurred in the past,” Payne says. “It ought to be assessed individually.”

But what Payne sees as an improvement, others describe as a concern.

Cathy Graham, executive director of IARCCA, An Association of Children & Family Services, says the higher screen-out rate is a statewide issue.

IARCCA, based in Indianapolis, is a nonprofit organization that represents 115 agencies around Indiana that provide services for children.

“They say that’s consistent with other states, and that may be true,” Graham says of the screen-out rate. But she’s hearing from agencies all over the state worried that some concerns are being overlooked.

In more than 100,000 calls a year to the hot line — DCS recently reported 146,000 calls in 2011 — she notes that certainly some of those are not appropriate for follow-up.

“But when a concerned citizen or school or doctor’s office calls and they get screened out,” Graham says, “that’s a concern for IARCCA’s member agencies.”

There is much more to this story.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on February 12, 2012 02:23 PM
Posted to Indiana Government