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Sunday, April 22, 2012

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 April 22, 2012 10:57 AM
Posted to Indiana Government