INDIANAPOLIS (WLFI) - Ahead of the 2013 session of the Indiana General Assembly, members of an interim study committee focused on the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS), received an earful of complaints against the agency.
The interim study committee responded to those complaints with recommendations for lawmakers in its annual report . As a result, several pieces of legislation are being considered in both the House and Senate.
One of the most emotional complaints centered around the state's centralized child abuse hotline. The hotline was moved to one location, in Indianapolis. Before the move, calls came into to the local county DCS office. McFarland PR, a firm representing DCS, provided information about the benefits of the centralized hotline.
The firm boasts the hotline has a better system of keeping track of all reports. Before the hotline was centralized, there was no means of accurately tracking reports that came in at the local offices according to McFarland PR. When a report is made via the hotline, the call is recorded. A trained intake specialist handles the phone call and the hotline is staffed 24/7.
In 2012, McFarland PR said the hotline answered 155,867 calls. The average call lasted 11:58 minutes in length. The average wait time for a law enforcement officer was 36 seconds and one minute 51 seconds for a non-law enforcement officer. McFarland PR said Indiana's hotline is part of a national trend , citing Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper's intent to implement a similar system in his state ( read report from CBS-affiliate KCNC ).
However, during testimony for the interim study committee, there were complaints about how long it took for a callback from DCS after the initial report was made. The time between a report of a child in an unsafe situation and action is something that concerns state lawmakers.
"The numbers of referrals, they will brag, have gone down. Well, the reason why the numbers and referrals have gone down is they're not getting called back. This is another indication of when you cut government tremendously, you also cut services which we have done for our children," said State Rep. Sheila Klinker (D-District 27).
Rep. Klinker believes lawmakers need to take a look at the whole system. It appears though, a complete overhaul will not happen during the 2013 session. However, there are several bills in both the House and Senate aimed at making improvements.
Klinker said she favors going back to more local control. She said several people she knew had lost their jobs when the hotline was moved to Indianapolis and didn't want to relocate. She said it's more beneficial for those who live in the community, who know local police and judges and resources for families, to handle complaints. She believes that is a way to get more immediate reaction to reported cases of child abuse and neglect.
State Rep. Randy Truitt (R-District 26) said with the bipartisan support of the interim study committee report, changes are not only needed but very likely to happen.
"When a person calls, we need to jump into action and we need to address the problem and that's what I'm hoping to see come out of this," he said.
House Bill 1142 would increase staffing to the call center. It's something Indiana Governor Mike Pence (R) addressed during his first "State of the State" speech in January. He wants to increase spending to DCS by $35 million, in part, to pay for more trained staff at the call center. HB 1142 would also require every report taken by the hotline to be assigned to the local county office. It could be a compromise for the changes Klinker and Truitt want. A similar bill is moving through the Senate.
Another issue in the interim study committee report is the lack of oversight within DCS. This issue came to light in the fall of 2012 when an investigation by the Indianapolis Star accused then DCS Director James Payne of being personally involved in a case involving his son. Payne later resigned. An interim director was named until in after newly elected Gov. Pence appointed Lake County Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura to the post.
"Bringing an individual of extraordinary integrity and background and compassion in that area, I have great confidence," he told News 18 during an exclusive interview.
As for the issue of oversight, Senate Bill 125 would make the interim study committee an oversight committee to review with more scrutiny what goes on inside DCS.
If these changes are made, will it restore faith in the system for the people of Indiana? That remains to be seen but lawmakers believe we're on the right track.
REPORT CHILD ABUSE OR NEGLECT BY CALLING 1(800) 800-5556. More information about the Indiana Department of Child Services can be found via the agency's website .
Tune in Thursday, Feb. 14 to News 18 at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. for a special interview with a young woman who was pulled from an abusive home and put into the system. You'll hear her story and her message for other kids in similar situations.
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