-- Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has remained largely silent as children’s
advocates, including a member of his own Cabinet, say bean counting by his
administration has starved Indiana’s child welfare agency amid a soaring
number of cases fueled by the opioid epidemic.
The number of
children placed in foster care because their addict parents can’t care for
them has surged across the U.S. But the problem is particularly acute in a
handful of states including Indiana.
Now, what advocates
describe as a growing crisis faced by the Department of Child Services will
test not only the rookie governor, but also whether a state government
re-engineered over a decade to comport with conservative ideals can address
a systemic problem with no easy solution.
"We’re dying out
here,” said Marion County juvenile court Judge Marilyn A. Moores, a
Republican. “I get there are many people who don’t want to fund addicts. But
the children of addicts, they are the true innocent victims of this. If we
don’t protect them, who are we going to protect?”
cases shot up across Indiana more than sixfold between 2000 and 2015.
Evansville’s Vanderburgh County, with a population of 179,000, had more
children of drug users enter foster care than major cities including
Seattle, Miami and Las Vegas. And in Marion County, cases involving drugs
went from about 20 percent of foster children in 2010 to 50 percent five
Earlier this month,
Holcomb’s child welfare chief wrote a scathing resignation letter. In it,
outgoing DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura said service cuts and management
changes “all but ensure children will die.”
“I choose to
resign, rather than be complicit in decreasing the safety, permanency and
well-being of children who have nowhere else to turn,” she wrote.
Holcomb has not
responded to specific concerns raised by Bonaventura, who could not be
reached for comment.
His allies say
there is little to gain by stoking a public feud with the well-respected
former Lake County juvenile court judge with more than 36 years in the
field. She was appointed to lead DCS in 2013 by then-Gov. Mike Pence.
But Holcomb has
pushed back against accusations that his administration cut funding, noting
the agency’s budget increased by $450 million in the current state budget.
Without going into
specifics, his office defends agency changes as necessary to ensure limited
taxpayer dollars are used effectively.
“We are asking DCS
to be responsible and make good judgments to optimize the resources they
have to protect children,” Holcomb spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson said
Thursday. “We expect the same of all state agencies.”
funding increases belie dramatic cuts made to the agency after a tax code
overhaul championed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels eliminated local property
taxes as DCS’s primary source of funding. Holcomb was one of Daniels’ chief
It’s taken until
now for state funding to reach the same level of state and local funding DCS
received in 2008 under the old system, a review of fiscal records shows.
That, however, does not take into account inflation or the spike in cases
placing additional burden on the agency.
were quick to pounce in the wake of Bonaventura’s resignation letter.
Party Chairman John Zody questioned whether Holcomb’s time in office would
be defined by easy “layups” or “a bold, new game plan.”
“Gov. Holcomb can
be a transformative leader or just another politician,” Zody said. “The
window for the governor to choose and take bold action is quickly closing.”
recent annual report painted a bleak picture. The beleaguered agency does
not have enough caseworkers to meet a minimum requirement set in state law.
It also has trouble retaining those who are hired for the demanding job,
which pays about $33,000 to $35,000 a year.
“It’s a daily
struggle. I haven’t had the sense that they’ve prioritized hiring case
managers,” Moores said. “We’re down 100 case managers in Marion County
In October, Moores
says she was notified that a retroactive cut of 17 percent would be made to
a pot of money funding preventative programs that help keep kids out of the
Foster parents say
DCS is an agency engaged in perpetual triage, with a staff stretched so thin
that they often have little choice but to cut corners. Meanwhile, some
programs designed to help foster families offset costs have long wait lists,
forcing them to pay costs out of pocket.
“It seems like it
is getting worse,” said Terry Coomler, a foster parent of six years from
Fishers. “It’s not getting better. I don’t see any solutions.”
Holcomb said in an
interview this month -- before the DCS crisis erupted -- that the challenges
of being governor weigh on him.
One moment he hears
about someone’s wildest successes, the next he’s told about a son or
daughter that overdosed.
to you -- the good, and the bad, and the unknown,” Holcomb said.