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Updated: Tuesday, 27 Nov 2012, 6:50 PM EST
Published : Tuesday, 27 Nov 2012, 2:30 PM EST
INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - Proposed changes to Indiana’s Department of Child Services took a step forward Tuesday. Recommendations that would include increased local oversight of the state’s child abuse hotline were unanimously approved in a surprise move by a bi-partisan panel of lawmakers.
The 20-member Department of Child Services Interim Study Committee met for the final time Tuesday, after debating the merits of more than 40 recommendations it heard during testimony over the last three months.
The committee unanimously approved a recommendation to create a permanent, eleven-member DCS Oversight Committee. Additional members were recommended to be added to the committee by the Speaker of the House and Senate President Pro-Tem, based off of recommendations from the Indiana Chief Justice and State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
If the legislature approves the plan, that committee would meet at least four times a year.
Additional recommendations were made to expand existing child fatality review teams at the state and regional levels. Those teams are charged with investigating non-medically explained child deaths. The committee also recommended hiring a new coordinator to work with those teams in conjunction with the Indiana State Department of Health, and recommended legislators further study the issue of a statewide system.
Another 15-member committee that would be charged with “improving the status of children” also garnered the unanimous approval of the group. If it is approved by the General Assembly, it would take up issues such as school delinquency, juvenile arrest rates, child abuse and domestic violence, said committee member Sen. Tim Lanane (D-Anderson). That committee would then create an annual report to be delivered to lawmakers.
But, by far the most hotly debated issue among the committee concerned the DCS child abuse hotline.
During the committee’s earlier hearings, parents, providers and others told stories of long wait times, unprofessional operators and cases that were ignored.
Determining how to improve the system seemed to create a polarizing divide across party lines.
Some Democrats called for a fully localized system, saying local control was crucial to catching cases of abuse that were being ignored. Republicans argued the cost of a fully local system could require more than 1,000 new work staff and could cost the state more than $57 million per year. They instead proposed a “hybrid” system would modify the existing central hotline in Indianapolis by adding new intake specialists, while creating a new localized hotline for “professional” reporters like hospital workers, teachers and social workers.
But, on Tuesday, both sides backed off of their demands and called instead for a “modified hybrid plan.”
Under it, all calls would continue to go to the central hotline in Indianapolis, but the call center would add 50 new intake specialists and 10 new supervisors. DCS says the additions would reduce hold times on the hotline and allow it more flexibility with operators. All reports from professionals would also be received through the hotline, but would then be assessed by 80 new local family case managers and 16 new supervisors.
That will result in at least 15,000 more full assessments each year, DCS said.
That’s in addition to new operators DCS is already in the process of hiring, said the agency’s director John Ryan.
“We are in the process of hiring an additional 120 family case managers and an additional 75 supervisors. And, what that is going to address is the turnover situation, which has been quite high,” Ryan said.
In addition, all calls “screened out” by hotline operators in Indianapolis would be referred on to local supervisors, decreasing the chance that cases in need of attention are missed, DCS said.
That would allow local field teams to decide whether to investigate, not hotline workers in Indianapolis, said committee Co-Chairman Rep. Kevin Mahan (R-Hartford City).
“I think the theme of the day is local control,” Mahan told 24-Hour News 8. “We did reach a very delicate balance here, to where the professionals that are dealing with this day in and day out, 24-hours a day, are now going to have that local control to where they can work again with their local officials, but at the same time still keep the integrity of the hotline in place.”
That centralized hotline was initially opposed by many Democrats. But, Riecken said she is willing to give the new approach a chance.
“Is that another layer of bureaucracy? Yes, it is. Would I prefer to have everything back in the county or regional level? Yes, I would. But, I will take this and support this as a major accomplishment toward improving the situation to protect children. The decision making will be at a local level. That's the critical point,” she said.
Still, Riecken says she will be paying close attention to any changes that are approved by the legislature.
“I want to make sure the centralized system doesn't slow the process
of helping children down," she said.
That concern was shared by family service providers like Cathleen Graham, Executive Director of IARCCA, an Association of Children & Family Services.
“This was a good first step,” Graham told 24-Hour News 8. “We’ve already seen improvements and I think the oversight committee will continue that. We applaud the adding of staff and new child protection screens. Our main concern with the hotline has been both with the professional reporting being scrutinized and the general screen-out rate. So, that’s what we’ll be keeping an eye on with the local portion.”
The total cost of the two plans is around $9 million per year, according to legislative analysts. Plans to create 18 “regional” call centers at a cost of nearly $20 million per year were not recommended by the committee.
“The hotline becomes sort of like a 911 dispatcher,” Lanane said. “It takes the decision making out of the hotline’s hands and puts it into local control.
If the legislature agrees with the committee’s recommendation, hiring and training of staff and implementation of the program could take up to 9 months, in part because money would have to be appropriated by the legislature for the new positions, Ryan told the committee.
Bipartisan bills will be introduced in both chambers in January.
Asked about his own future with the agency, Ryan said he hadn’t spoken with Governor-elect Mike Pence about it.
“I trust his wisdom and I’m looking forward to a good discussion,” he said. “We believe there were a lot of good ideas and concepts that have come out of this committee. We look forward to implementing a number, if not all, of the recommendations coming out of this DCS study committee. ”