"I feel I am unable to protect children because of the position taken by your staff to cut funding and services to children in the midst of the opioid crisis," Mary Beth Bonaventura wrote in a Dec. 12 letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb. "I choose to resign, rather than be complicit in decreasing the safety, permanency and well-being of children who have nowhere else to turn."
This from our Director of the Indiana Department of Child Services – the last line of defense for our most vulnerable citizens. And so that there is no misunderstanding about how serious this situation is, she warned that a continuation of its policies will "all but ensure children will die."
Some may think she overstates, but I am not one who does. I was a Court Appointed Special Advocate for Children (CASA) for almost seven years. My tenure spanned the tail end of James Payne’s administration and the early years of Ms. Bonaventura’s. Payne’s tenure can be characterized by impossible workloads for caseworkers and the pride in which he took in failing to spend all the resources given his dramatically underfunded department. And, as The Indianapolis Star reported, Payne waged a behind-the-scenes fight to discredit and derail his agency's recommendations in a case involving his own family. Nine months later, DCS pushed to end the neglect case and permanently reunite the children with their mother. Payne resigned when this became public.
The appointment of Bonaventura provided both a breath of fresh air and a shot of adrenaline to a cash-strapped and mightily discouraged department. With a professional child advocate at the helm, morale picked up and the legislature was convinced to both allocate more resources and impose maximum caseload limits. It all seemed so promising to those of us who worked with these families.
Alas, it was a mirage. The caseload statute was politely ignored. Workload dropped slightly for a while, but then many questionable “cost saving measures” were implemented – in the end, the department didn’t have the funds to comply with the statute.
To my chagrin, it seems things took a turn for the (even) worse in the Holcomb administration. Holcomb appointed Eric Miller as her department chief of staff in Bonaventura’s words because “he was an asset during the campaign”. Miller has no professional background in the field – he appears by his LinkedIn profile to be a GOP favored bureaucrat.
The Indianapolis Star noted in its report: “Using the position and authority given by Holcomb's office, Bonaventura argued, Miller has engineered his own hires, bullied subordinates, created a hostile work environment, exposed the agency to lawsuits, overridden her decisions, been 'brazenly insubordinate" and made cost-cutting decisions without her knowledge. She said her attempts to "rein him in" haven't been supported.”
Meanwhile, the ranks of Children In Need of Services (CHINS) swell and swell.
It’s hard not to see a parallel of what the talented Glenda Ritz was forced to deal with in the Department of Education. Highly qualified, highly motivated, professional women were undermined; thus, prevented from doing their jobs successfully. And both seemed to have been gaslighted.
When I was an Advocate, there were over 1000 children in need of services in St. Joseph County alone. Extrapolating from state statistics I would guess there must be at least 1200 at this point. These are infants to late teen-aged kids who have suffered abuse or neglect – ranging in small ways to horrific. It is not OK to wash our hands of this, or write these kids off. They require our full attention, our best efforts.
Many can be successfully reunited with their family. But this requires professional services. We need DCS caseworkers to monitor conditions. We need counselors who can build relationship skills for both the children and adults involved. We need CASAs who can help connect kids and families with available resources, make sure that if individual education plans (IEPs) are warranted – they are implemented, and that the child’s best interests are represented in Probate Court proceedings.
For older kids, smooth transition to higher education or work life is critical. There are some fine programs in existence, but people are needed to familiarize clients with what is available, line up transitional housing, and follow up on their progress.
And we need the best person available to be in charge of all this.