Sunday, February 5, 2012

Echoes of a tragedy

Don Wheeler
To the editors of The South Bend Tribune:

I write to offer my unqualified compliments and appreciation for the trio of articles published today. I regard the reporting work as thorough, sober, objective - and important. Devoting the first, second, and seventh pages of your publication to this subject is a clear indication that the editors of Tribune understand the importance as well. 

I am particularly pleased you included a detailed explanation of how the Department of Child Services (DCS) program operates and that you included descriptions of the increased challenges they face.

I was sworn in as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for Children (CASA) fairly shortly after Indiana had made a serious investment in reducing caseloads for DCS caseworkers (who often had to try to monitor over forty families each).  The trends were encouraging.

The cases I have been associated with involved kids designated as Children In Need of Services (CHINS) for many years. It is my belief that the improvements made to the program led to positive outcomes for a group of four siblings, and look very promising for a teenager ready to start life as an  independent adult.

Yet a few short years later, the trends are the opposite.  As noted in the article, reported cases of abuse and/or neglect of children which were investigated fell from 39% to 16%. Does anyone really believe that 84 percent of reported child abuse cases are meritless? And investigation does not necessarily mean that the children involved will get help - keep in mind that many investigations conclude with a finding that the abuse is unsubstantiated. 

Though I was appalled to read that DCS left over $100M of its seriously truncated budget unspent, it becomes clearer how that happened. If fewer cases are investigated, the State's cost will decrease. It's also no secret that the State DCS has tried to move children out of more expensive residential programs and into foster situations.  For some children, that's not appropriate. Then (as noted in the article) the State has reduced compensation levels for both types of programs.

Indiana DCS Director James Payne is quoted as saying "We have more children with fewer dollars and better results.."  I have to wonder what results he's thinking of.  In his department the only result worth discussing is good outcomes for our children. 

Budgets are clear statements of our values. Resources are finite. What of those we devote to specific purposes speaks loudly of what we believe to be important.

I believe the State of Indiana has a duty to protect its citizens - especially the most vulnerable ones. Our children.

It doesn't bode well, if in our efforts to help our children safely towards adulthood and productive citizenship, cost containment is the objective.  I believe that to be both shortsighted and immoral.

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