COLUMBUS — Shortly after State Rep. Milo Smith announced he would not seek re-election to his Columbus area district seat, he had an exit interview with Gov. Eric Holcomb.
Among topics discussed was the status of the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS), an agency beleaguered by overburdened caseworkers since Smith took office 12 years ago.
Smith, who serves on the House Family, Children and Human Affairs Committee, said he told the governor, "DCS is close to my heart. These kids need a lot of help. It's been my experience that the caseworkers are underpaid and overworked."
His concerns have been echoed throughout the legislature this session where 14 bills addressing DCS issues were introduced.
A few weeks before Smith announced his retirement in early January, the DCS saw the abrupt resignation of its director, who wrote a scathing letter critical of Holcomb's administration. In late December, the governor was seeking an outside agency to study DCS procedures.
In their exit chat, Smith urged the study look at the caseload and pay for DCS staffers.
On Monday, Smith added, "There's plenty of money in DCS to pay for all the services we need."
Smith even recalled a time when a constituent called him to complain that a local DCS office had not responded in nine days to an allegation that a 12-year-old girl was being abused. Smith called the governor's office, which pledged action.
He was speaking Monday to constituents in his District 59, as was State Sen. Greg Walker, a Republican who also serves the area.
Walker told the gathering that the Indiana General Assembly provided an additional $7 million for two years to DCS. However, those funds were spent within nine months and was a factor in the former director's resignation, he said.
Last week, The Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, which was contracted to review DCS, issued its second progress report. Its final report is set to be in the governor's hands by June 21.
So far, the Policy Group has spoken to more than 140 people involved in child services. On the positive, those interviewed expressed hope about DCS' new director, Terry Stigdon, and a "renewed interest" from state leaders.
Caseworkers and supervisors are dedicated, however, front-line staffers — which does not include those who offer direct delivery of services — might not have adequate knowledge and skills.
According to a report released in February by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there were 1,700 fatalities resulting from child maltreatment reported in 2016, compared to 1,589 the previous year.
In part, increases were found in Texas and Indiana. In Indiana, deaths rose from 34 to 70.
Among 14 bills introduced to the Indiana General Assembly concerning DCS, there has been unanimous support for Senate Bill 431, which would provide immunity from liability to people or health care providers who assist in an investigation by DCS resulting from a report of child abuse. Also, the bill was amended to provide immunity for reports of animal abuse if seen by the caseworkers or others investigating reports of child abuse in the home.
State Sen. Andy Zay's Senate Bill 428 requires better coordination between DCS and schools in developing a plan for students. Another bill by Zay, R-Huntington, increases the number of children who may be supervised in a foster home from five to six.
In a statement, Zay said, “I believe increasing the number of foster children allowed for supervision in each foster home is needed now more than ever, with the increasing number of DCS cases resulting directly from our current opioid crisis.”
Also State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, authored a resolution seeking a legislative study of DCS, in addition to the Policy Group's work.
"The Indiana General Assembly is an equal branch of government, and therefore the legislature should also be investigating ways to properly protect our children and appropriate funds to support the agency and the providers,” Melton said.