INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The number of children who died because
of abuse or neglect in Indiana surged in the first year of a statewide
hotline, and the Department of Child Services said it didn't get involved
with about 90 percent of those cases until after the children concerned
Forty children died of abuse or neglect in the year before July 2011, the
most recent period for which data have been compiled, according to an
annual report released Monday. That's up from 25 deaths the previous year
and occurred in the first year of a statewide hotline system designed to
streamline reporting of such cases.
There is no one reason for the increase, but DCS officials note that many
of the cases involve common factors: a child left in the care of a
mother's boyfriend, drug abuse or domestic violence.
DCS officials told The Associated Press before releasing the report that
only six of the children who died had a prior history with the agency. In
2010, four of the children involved in fatal cases had prior involvement
In one case, a 13-year-old Gary boy was beaten, kept in a dog cage and fed
Ramen noodles and leftovers. DCS records show the agency investigated the
boy's parents before his death but didn't uncover any wrongdoing in his
In another, a 3-year-old Fort Wayne boy died during an exorcism attempt.
Agency spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland said DCS had previous contact with
nine other families of children who died. Three of those cases involved
the child who died, but caseworkers did not find enough physical evidence
of abuse or neglect to justify further action, she said.
Contact in the other cases involved either the person responsible for the
death of the child or a parent.
Department of Child Services officials said the agency has no power to
prevent abuse. In most years, DCS has no involvement with the majority of
the children who die, agency Chief of Staff John Ryan told The Associated
A number of deaths involve social issues that the government cannot
control, officials said.
"I'm not sure DCS can do some of these things by itself," said the
agency's new director, former Lake County Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth
Bonaventura, who took over the agency a few weeks ago.
"How do you legislate morality? How do you legislate common sense? How do
you legislate people to not have addictive personalities?" she said.
Most of the child deaths reported in that period came after the September
2010 launch of the hotline to receive reports of abuse and neglect from
across the state. The hotline came under criticism last year from
lawmakers and children's advocates who said hotline workers screened out
calls that should have been investigated, including cases of sexual abuse.
Others complained about wait times or said that even after they reported
an issue to the hotline, hours passed before a DCS caseworker arrived to
A bill was introduced to require DCS to turn over all hotline reports to
the local level to determine which should be investigated. But the
beleaguered agency made the change on its own in early March.
DCS officials defended the hotline, saying that before it was implemented,
local child protection workers might not have aggressively pursued some
cases because they knew the family.
Rep. Gail Riecken, D-Evansville, said she was concerned that the Senate's
version of a new two-year state budget shaved $10 million from the $40
million annual increase for DCS that the House had proposed. Riecken, who
has been a critic of the DCS hotline, said that additional money was
needed to implement changes, including a proposal to require closer review
of child abuse reports made by school or medical personnel,
law-enforcement officials or social workers.
She said she hoped that money would be included in the compromise budget
agreement that House and Senate negotiators are expected to settle this
"I think we need to keep reminding them of how important it is to do that
at every turn," Riecken said. "Certainly these statistics point out the
necessity of returning decision making to the local level."
Ryan said at a news conference Monday that a change in state law since the
period covered in the report now allows the agency to keep reports on
unsubstantiated abuse cases until the family's youngest child turns 24
years old. Previously, those reports could only be kept for six months.
Ryan said that change had led to an increase in the number of family
assessments being done by the agency.
"That lets us cross-reference prior reports, prior history, so that we can
better assess the risk children in a family are exposed to," Ryan said.
Nearly half — 48 percent — of the deaths from abuse included in the report
involved children under a year old, and head injuries were the most
Bonaventura said the point of the report was to learn from it and do a
"The whole point is to identify trends, strengths and weaknesses in the
system to reduce or eliminate the number of children who end up dead," she