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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ind. Law - "Ensuring the integrity of the sex offender list" and "Marion County repairs sex offender registry"

This editorial today is from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazetteand is headed "Ensuring integrity of offender list":

Indiana’s sex offender registry is a valuable tool if its information is correct. But not all counties are diligent in ensuring the addresses of convicted sexual offenders are accurate. As a legislative study committee prepares to examine the registry this summer, lawmakers would be wise to look to Allen County’s experts.

The Indianapolis Star examined the state registry for a recent story and found many problems with Marion County listings. Some showed offenders living at addresses for vacant lots. Others reported addresses for offenders now imprisoned.

Many of the problems relate to Marion County’s handling of offenders convicted before July 1994. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled three years ago that Richard P. Wallace, convicted in 1989, shouldn’t be required to register for an offense committed before the statewide registry was created. The ruling applied to hundreds of others whose names had been wrongly included.

In Marion County and some others, the so-called Wallace offenders have been left on the registry with the last address they reported. The result is that some addresses inaccurately show sex offenders residing there.

By contrast, the Allen County Sheriff’s Department rightly removed the names of Wallace offenders, averting a cluttered list that residents can’t rely on.

Cpl. Mike Smothermon, one of three sheriff’s department employees overseeing the Allen County registry, said the intent of the law was to notify the public when an offender moves into a neighborhood. The intent is compromised when the information isn’t dependable.

“Accuracy is absolutely our goal here,” the detective said. “The integrity of the information is our first priority.”

The Allen County list is meticulously maintained, with law enforcement officers from the county, Fort Wayne and New Haven routinely participating in visits to make sure offenders live where they say they do.

It’s not an easy task; offenders move frequently.

Because Smothermon knows residents won’t routinely check the registry, he encourages them to sign up for email notification. Just more than 3 percent of Allen County households have done so, the highest percentage in the state.

He credits Sheriff Ken Fries for making the registry a priority and for providing the resources needed to ensure its accuracy. He also cites the OffenderWatch software program that allows the system to be updated instantly and for officers throughout the state to share information when offenders relocate.

When lawmakers meet this summer to address the statewide system, Smothermon and Cpl. Jeff Shimkus, who also helps maintain the registry, hope there will be suggestions from law enforcement, judicial representatives and treatment providers. A bill in the last session would have required law enforcement to continue posting the names of nonviolent offenders even after the requirement to update their addresses ends, eventually burdening the list with useless information.

“We have to make sure it’s not a knee-jerk reaction to pass a new law,” Shimkus said. “We’ve got to come up with rules that make sense.”

Also today, this front-page story in the Indianapolis Star, headed "Marion County repairs sex offender registry: Sheriff removes 'Wallace offenders' in the name of accuracy, but other counties say the public is better served by leaving them on," appears one week after the front-page Star story of April 15th, headed "Sex offender listing intended to protect the public is riddled with errors" referenced in today's FWJG editorial.

From today's Star story, as reported by Alex Campbell:

A week after The Indianapolis Star exposed numerous errors on Marion County's portion of the state sex offender registry, the sheriff's office has made good on its pledge to do something:

It has wiped away many of the mistakes. ***

Marion County Sheriff John Layton completely removed [more than 523 offenders] from the registry in one fell swoop last week. In an instant he fixed dozens of the accuracy problems exposed by The Star.

But, in doing so, he also placed Marion County at odds with numerous state officials and lawmakers in a philosophical debate over how best to handle a particular group of offenders.

The debate is over so-called "Wallace offenders," whose crimes did not require registration when they committed them. Thanks to a state Supreme Court ruling nearly three years ago, these offenders don't have to update law enforcement when they move.

The result is that untold numbers of "Wallace offenders" in Indiana remain on the registry, but with outdated addresses. And those locations pop up and look like current addresses of sex offenders when a person does a typical search by address.

The Star's April 15 story, for example, found dozens of such instances in Marion County alone.

"Based on the report," Layton wrote in a letter to The Star, "in accord with the Indiana Supreme Court decision, I have ordered 'Wallace Offenders' removed from the system."

The order reduces the size of the county's portion of the state registry by more than 25 percent. Layton's letter thanked The Star "for bringing a clearer focus on this ever challenging endeavor."

His legal counsel, Kevin Murray, told The Star on Friday that Layton was worried about "the integrity of the system" and felt that keeping these offenders without verifying their addresses "sends a mixed message."

That mirrors the position of another of the state's largest counties, Allen County.

But it is a position in conflict with others -- and illustrates the county-by-county inconsistency with the registry, which was created by the legislature in 1994.

Many other counties prefer keeping Wallace offenders on the public registry. And they have the support of Department of Correction officials and the attorney general, who have argued -- at the Statehouse and in court -- that these offenders should stay on, even if law enforcement no longer tracks where they live.

Even if it means increasing the likelihood of sharing erroneous information with the public.

Attorney general spokesman Bryan Corbin would not comment on Marion County's decision. A Department of Correction official did not return a message left Friday afternoon.

Each county has the final say on how it manages its sex offenders, as long as it fits with the letter of the law. But the statewide Indiana Sheriffs' Association provides guidelines on "best practices" in the field, and its executive director, Steve Luce, said Friday that he still recommends keeping Wallace offenders on the registry, and marking them in some way to make it clear that they might have moved.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on Sunday, April 22, 2012
Posted to Indiana Law

Ind. Gov't. - Sunday South Bend Tribune focuses on child abuse

Marisa Kwiatkowski and Virginia Black of the South Bend Tribune report today that Indiana Department of Child Services Director James Payne "said his office is considering two changes as a result of the circumstances surrounding 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis' beating death in South Bend in November." More:

Director James Payne said at a recent community meeting in Merrillville, Ind., that the department will look at how DCS workers respond to allegations made by someone who did not witness abuse or neglect firsthand.

In Tramelle’s case, a concerned person contacted the DCS call center to report abuse two other people had described was happening in the Sturgis family’s home that night, including that a child had been seen bleeding and limping. The caller indicated a desire to remain anonymous because of safety worries.

DCS told the caller to contact police if the children were in imminent danger, then determined DCS should investigate within 24 hours, Payne said. DCS caseworkers are supposed to respond within one hour if the child is believed to be in immediate danger. * * *

DCS has not responded to Tribune questions about whether police were ever alerted to the caller’s detailed allegations or why an on-call case manager did not respond that night.

DCS records show case managers visited the next day and two more times, finally finding someone at the home four days later and soon after closing the case.

Payne said at the recent meeting that his agency probably should have responded to the May call within one hour instead of within 24 hours. Yet he said he doesn’t believe the outcome of the investigation would have been different if they had responded immediately. At the time, neither police nor DCS found evidence of abuse or neglect in the home, Payne said.

He also said his agency will look at whether DCS and police should go to a home together instead of at different times.

Also today, Virginia Black of the Tribune has a lengthy story headed "When to purge DCS records? New law addresses 'unsubstantiated' reports, but concern lingers." Some quotes:
Until last month, Indiana law mandated that unsubstantiated records be destroyed after six months.

In the wake of the Sturgis case, local investigators learned that school records showed officials there had reported abuse twice as well, but DCS no longer had those records. Had those earlier complaints remained in the system, might officials have given more weight to the allegations in May?

St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Dvorak was so frustrated by the lack of older records in the Sturgis case he urged state Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, to amend the law in the most recent General Assembly session.

In a Jan. 9 letter to Broden, Dvorak wrote, “The school these children had attended made calls to DCS. A caseworker visited the home and the school. The caseworker closed her report as ‘unsubstantiated’ after interviewing the children in the presence of the father.

“Per DCS policy, those records were destroyed. Fortunately, the school maintained records,” Dvorak continued in his letter. “Had the school not kept records there would be no way of knowing what, if any, investigation had ever been undertaken by DCS. … A statute should be enacted to assure citizens there is oversight of DCS. While I am confident there are other examples of the need to make sure DCS records are accessible, I can imagine no example more compelling than the beating death of this child and the serious bodily injury to his brothers.”

Broden offered an amendment to Senate Bill 286 that would have required DCS to keep unsubstantiated records for at least three years.

But by the time Gov. Mitch Daniels signed S.B. 286 into law on March 14, Republicans had pushed a compromise that removed the requirement to destroy records but left open the possibility that an “interested party” could request that such records be expunged.

Language loopholes?

Broden, a former DCS attorney himself, sees the argument that some unsubstantiated reports falsely and unfairly accuse parents, but “it’s a very tight circle of who can get access to the reports.”

DCS Director James Payne acknowledged in a January interview that a current call might be taken more seriously if there were similar past reports, even unsubstantiated ones.

There is much more in the long story.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on Sunday, April 22, 2012
Posted to Indiana Government

Ind. Gov't. - Sunday Muncie Star-Press focuses on child abuse in a number of stories today

In a long opinion piece today in the Muncie Star-Press, Lisa Nellessen-Lara writes about the incident a year ago where a Muncie Central student reported to school administrators that she had been raped, but officials delayed making a report. (See this March 8, 2011 ILB entry headed "Ex-Muncie Central principal charged over handling of rape case.") From the editorial:

The Star Press set out to due last April, when we partnered with Marcus Jackman and the fantastic journalists at Indiana Public Radio to raise awareness of the issue of child abuse.

Published over four Sundays in April 2011, the series -- "For a Child's Sake: The Epidemic of Child Abuse" -- pulled no punches.

Over the course of the series, reporters Keith Roysdon and Douglas Walker looked at the issue of child abuse from the perspective of police, prosecutors, social workers and families. They detailed the toll of abuse on children, through interviews with adult survivors, physicians and social workers.

Those profiled also included perpetrators, and the law enforcement authorities on the front lines of local abuse cases.

And the reporters provided Star Press readers with their first detailed look at Muncie's Child Advocacy Center and its role in helping authorities improve their investigations of child-abuse cases.

An underlying theme of the series was the responsibility all citizens share in reporting suspected abuse of children.

Unfortunately, the ILB missed the stories last year and the Star-Press does not appear to provide a public archive of even its award-winning stories.

Today, however, the Star-Press has three new stories om the topic:

"Can child abuse response be 'right-sized?' As the state follows a new abuse reporting process with efforts to close treatment facilities, advocates say the Department of Child Services cares more about money than children." The very long story is reported by Keith Roysdon and Douglas Walker. The lengthy story begins:

MUNCIE -- In the wake of criticism over Indiana's new system for reporting child abuse -- including allegations that the Department of Child Services' screening process dismissed reports that might have prevented the deaths of several children at the hands of abusers -- DCS is implementing more changes that could hit communities across the state.

Throughout Indiana, dozens of treatment centers that offer shelter and counseling to abused children could be forced to close through a DCS "right-sizing" process. Facilities like Muncie's Youth Opportunity Center -- home to 136 abused, neglected and troubled children -- could lose state funding. So could half the state's nearly 100 such facilities.

DCS Director James Payne's push to cut costs at DCS -- resulting in more than $100 million of the agency's annual budget being turned back into the state's coffers -- included the state's centralized, 800-number child abuse reporting system, in place since 2010.

Now DCS -- which has already cut payments to some treatment centers by as much as 25 percent -- is requiring the centers to submit proposals for how they will contain costs.

"Current utilization of residential beds ... is below 55 percent," DCS wrote in a recent request for proposal sent to juvenile treatment centers around the state. "DCS intends to right-size the number of beds it contracts for ..."

"Right-sizing" is a phrase used by private industry and is often equated with cutbacks and layoffs. It isn't commonly used in connection with treatment of children who have been beaten or sexually molested.

"Right-size?' Delaware County Prosecutor Jeffrey Arnold said last week in a mocking tone. "That's a cute word."

Arnold is among officials, from Delaware County and elsewhere in the state, who told The Star Press they're increasingly alarmed about efforts by DCS -- under Payne, a former Marion County juvenile court judge appointed to the DCS post by Gov. Mitch Daniels -- that have changed how the state handles child abuse allegations and, when substantiated, cases.

From later in the story:
Critics of DCS point to incidents in recent weeks that have been reported in The South Bend Tribune and The Indianapolis Star. In particular, the beating death of 10-year-old South Bend resident Tramelle Sturgis in November, more than five months after a caller contacted DCS through its 800-number hotline and urged authorities to investigate abuse in the home. The Indianapolis Star noted several deaths involving children around the state, including that of a toddler who died months after a call to the hotline.

[Deputy Prosecutor Eric] Hoffman noted that he called the state's 800 number for reporting child abuse and was put on hold 45 minutes.

"If Billy Bob sees his neighbor beating a child with a fishing rod, how many numbers will he call?" Arnold asked. "Will he wait that long? It's insanity."

"Local prosecutors' efforts to change abuse law failed" is the second story today by the same reporting team. The long story begins:
MUNCIE -- In the wake of a rape at Central High School in November 2010, it quickly became apparent to Delaware County prosecutors that a state law requiring citizens to promptly report child abuse needed to be reworded.

A judge last month found ex-Central principal Christopher Smith guilty of a misdemeanor in his failure to immediately alert authorities to the reported rape. Testimony at an earlier trial, however, reflected he was by no means the only Muncie Community Schools administrator uncertain whether the student-on-student assault met the legal definition of child abuse.

That confusion prompted Delaware County Prosecutor Jeffrey Arnold and Deputy Prosecutor Eric Hoffman to enlist the help of local state representatives Dennis Tyler and Bill Davis in early 2011 to "clarify the reporting-of-child-abuse statute," Hoffman recalled recently.

By the end of that legislation session, however, their effort had gone nowhere.

Participants in the saga have different explanations for the proposed legislation's ultimate failure, but all agree on one thing -- officials at the state Department of Child Services, including its influential director, James Payne, were strongly against changing the wording of the law.

According to Hoffman and Arnold, Payne's concern was that a broader definition of child abuse would result in greater use of DCS's centralized -- and controversial -- 800-number child abuse reporting system.

"His concern was that the call center would get more calls," Hoffman said.

The final story today, also by the Walker and Roysdon team, is headed "State weighs in on juvenile case: DCS consultant often declines to approve residential treatment, judges say." The story begins:
MUNCIE -- There's a little-seen figure in the decision-making process in Delaware County's juvenile court, completely separate from the judge, prosecutor and probation officer.

The lesser-known player? A Fort Wayne real estate agent.

John-Michael Segyde is the Indiana Department of Child Services probation service consultant for much of the eastern third of Indiana, including Delaware County. As such, Segyde -- who is also a Coldwell Banker real estate agent in Allen County -- passes judgment on the treatment plans for juveniles whose cases pass through the court.

Segyde -- who last week did not respond to a call seeking comment from The Star Press -- doesn't come to court and has no dealings with the judge -- or the juveniles, for that matter.

Under the system set up by DCS in the past two years, Segyde reviews cases and, as he did last week in the case of a juvenile who is perpetually absent from school, often contradicts the orders issued by the judge.

Segyde filed a report last week that disagreed with an order by Brian Pierce -- the local court system's master commissioner for juvenile court -- that the youngster be placed in the Youth Opportunity Center. That meant that Pierce will, as he has in the past, overrule the DCS finding and order placement, requiring DCS to pay for the youth's stay at the YOC.

While a system is in place for DCS to respond to a judge's override of a consultant's decision by taking the case to the Indiana Court of Appeals, that hasn't happened in any local cases.

Pierce last week estimated 60 to 75 percent of the requests for local juveniles to be placed in treatment facilities such as the YOC are denied by Segyde, "a guy sitting in Fort Wayne" who doesn't see or hear the participants in a given case.

"That first-hand (experience) is vitally important when you're dealing with kids," Pierce said.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on Sunday, April 22, 2012
Posted to Indiana Government

Ind. Law - "Texting and driving: It's dangerous and it's illegal"

That is the heading to an editorial in the April 19th Muncie Star-Press. The editroial reports that almost no one gets caught:

In Indiana, a police officer has to see you text and drive, which is almost impossible to determine. That driver holding a cell phone might be dialing it, checking a map or playing a song. But if you are caught, the fine can be $500.

So the law as it's written now is nearly useless, and the number of people ignoring it, especially teens, is downright scary.

Sometimes drivers are charged after an accident. This brief story yesterday in the IndyStar, by John Tuohy, reports:
Police say a truck driver who rear-ended a school bus, slightly injuring nine students, was texting when his truck plowed into the elementary students’ bus in Indianapolis. * * *

Pike Township School Police Chief Allen Kasper * * * says driver Michael Mattingly “said he had just received a text and was reading it.” Mattingly was cited for texting while driving and is subject to a fine unless he contests the ticket.

From April 12th, a Muncie Star-Press story begins:
Authorities say a New Castle woman admitted she was texting when her vehicle left a county road Thursday afternoon and struck a utility pole. * * *

The trooper gave Williams a ticket for "use of a telecommunications device while operating a motor vehicle."

Posted by Marcia Oddi on Sunday, April 22, 2012
Posted to Indiana Law

Environment - "EPA’s battle shifts from pollution to politics"

Here are a few quotes from a long story by Dina Cappiello of the AP, published today in the Gary Post Tribune:

Gone are the many obvious signs of pollution — clouds of smoke billowing from industrial chimneys, raw sewage flowing into rivers, garbage strewn over beaches and roadsides — that heightened environmental awareness in the 1970s, and led to the first Earth Day and the EPA’s creation in 1970. Such environmental consciousness caused Congress to pass almost unanimously some of the country’s bedrock environmental laws in the years that followed.

Today’s pollution problems aren’t as easy to see or to photograph. Some in industry and politics question whether environmental regulation has gone too far and whether the risks are worth addressing, given their costs. * * *

“To a certain extent, we are a victim of our own success,” said [Indianapolis native] William Ruckelshaus, who headed the EPA when it came into existence under Republican President Richard Nixon and was in charge during the Documerica project. “Right now, EPA is under sharp criticism partially because it is not as obvious to people that pollution problems exist and that we need to deal with them.”

Environmental laws that passed Congress so easily in Ruckelshaus’ day are now at the center of a partisan dispute between Republicans and Democrats. Dozens of bills have been introduced to limit environmental protections that critics say will lead to job losses and economic harm, and there are those who question what the vast majority of scientists accept — that the burning of fossil fuels is causing global warming.

In the 1970s, the first environmental regulations were just starting to take effect, with widespread support. Now, according to some officials in the oil and gas and electric utility industries, which are responsible for the bulk of emissions and would bear the greatest costs, the EPA has gone overboard with rules.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on Sunday, April 22, 2012
Posted to Environment

Ind. Law - Is it the Supreme Court's fault the sex offender registry is incorrect?

Last Sunday the Indianapolis Star had a long, front-page story headed "Sex offender listing intended to protect the public is riddled with errors."

Yesterday at least two Indiana papers, the Evansville Courier Press and the Gary Post Tribune, ran shortened AP rewrites of the story.

Unfortunately, the AP version also includes this erroneous paragraph, which was not a part of the original Indianapolis Star story:

Efforts to correct the registry, however, have been stymied by the state Supreme Court's decision nearly three years ago to create a group known as "Wallace offenders."
This rewrite implies it is the Supreme Court's fault the registry is incorrect, rather than that it is the fault of those who persistently attempt to keep the Wallace offenders on the list in the face of the Supreme Court's order that application of the law to pre-July 1, 1994 offenders is unconstitutional.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on Sunday, April 22, 2012
Posted to Indiana Law