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By Olivia Covington
Creating a new child support system, providing aid to children dealing with trauma and employee recruitment and retention are the main areas the Indiana Department of Child Services is working to improve in the coming months.
The agency's director, Mary Beth Bonaventura, detailed the priorities Wednesday at the first meeting of the Child Services Oversight Committee, a group the General Assembly created to oversee children's programs after problems at the agency.
Bonaventura said the state is responsible for collecting and distributing approximately $1 billion in child support for families each year. She said she believes the department needs a system that will better equip its staff to handle this money to ensure the well-being of children.
"I never really realized how much money went through the Department of Child Services and what a huge operation it is," Bonaventura said. "We've determined that we are in desperate need for a new child support information system, and to that end we've begun the process of doing that and we'll be implementing a new system over the next several years."
Children who are removed from their homes, placed in new homes or moved between different foster homes usually suffer from trauma, Bonaventura said.
Even though she said she believes the department does a good job of eventually finding permanent homes for these children, she also said she thinks the agency needs to improve its methods for dealing with the emotional distress children feel after being moved.
"Our goal is to assess each and every child that's removed from the home within 30 days up front to make sure we can identify what that trauma is, and then within a short period of time, thereafter, to provide them with services that would address the trauma," Bonaventura said.
The director said the department will work with service providers to ensure that all children are given the treatment and attention they need.
Lisa Rich, the department's deputy director of services and outcomes, told the committee 17.7 percent of family case managers who work with children and families left the department in 2012.
According to Bonaventura, losing case managers - which forces children to work with multiple case managers - increases the likelihood that a child will stay in the department's system, while decreasing the likelihood that the child will be placed in a permanent home.
The department has partnered with the Indiana University School of Social Work to develop programs that recruit child welfare workers and to encourage current department employees to stay in their jobs.
"We are... trying to establish some practices within our agency to retain the people that are doing that very difficult work and understanding that, just like police and firefighters, that case managers also experience trauma," Bonaventura said. People who are "going through all of those reports and all of the people that are involved with children on a daily basis go through trauma, as well."
DCS Chief of Staff Doris Tolliver said there will be a greater emphasis on employee well-being to encourage staff retention.
"We know that this is difficult work, we know that it is not for the faint of heart and we know that it's not for everybody," Tolliver said. "I recognize and have a true appreciation for the fact that this is... a special calling, and we want to ensure that we recruit and maintain individuals who are going into this job eyes wide open and who have the commitment necessary to be able to do it long haul."
Rich also unveiled a children's mental health initiative pilot program meant to make it easier for families to contact necessary service providers.
"The children's mental health initiative came out of the fact that we knew that we had families around Indiana that had children who were struggling with significant mental health issues, and that those families wanted access to services but simply were not able to access those services because they didn't have a way to pay for them," Rich said.
Rich said some families that have mentally ill children need help keeping their families, so they don't need the services of abuse or neglect services. The department worked with the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration to develop a program that provides families with relevant care.
Under the children's mental health initiative, families will be reserved to access sites to be evaluated for eligibility in the initiative. Eligibility requirements include:
Children must be between 6 and 17
Children must have a mental illness that impairs their functionality
Children must have two diagnoses of dysfunctional behavior Families cannot have Medicaid
Families must have an issue with the family caregiver
Once the assessment is complete, families are referred to the necessary and appropriate services and resources.
The department has $25 million allocated for the program.
The first access site was opened on Nov. 12 in Dearborn County. The Oaklawn site was opened Jan. 22 for families in Goshen, Elkhart, South Bend and Mishawaka, and the Aspire site was opened March 24 to help families in Boone, Hamilton, Madison and Marion counties. The next site will be opened Aug. 5 in Bowen County. Rich said the department hopes to have all sites open by the end of the year.
Tolliver announced that four new regional department hotline centers will be added in Indiana. The centers in Blackford and Lawrence counties will each be staffed with five intake specialists and one family case manager supervisor. The facilities in St. Joseph and Vanderburgh counties will have 20 intake specialists and four family case manager supervisors.
The facilities in Blackford and Lawrence counties are set to open this fall.
Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, who chairs the oversight committee, said his committee is there to help guide the department.
"One thing I want to make clear with the committee is our one priority or one call... is to deliver a way to improve the delivery of child protection services in Indiana," Yoder said. "That's our task."
Olivia Covington is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.