Indiana's revenue shortfall — more than $100 million in just the first quarter of the budget year — wouldn't be nearly as worrisome if budget needs also were declining. But the growing number of child abuse and neglect cases not only makes spending cuts difficult, it makes them unwise.
The Department of Child Services is struggling to meet the demands of a skyrocketing number of abuse and neglect cases. Even with a nearly 60-percent increase in the number of case managers since 2012, the agency can't keep up. There were 23,950 cases last year, up from 13,048, or nearly an 84 percent increase. In 2015 there were 77 child deaths resulting from abuse or neglect, up from 25 in 2010.
The state is failing to meet its own child protection guidelines. State law requires a family case manager's workload not exceed 12 initial assessments or 17 children monitored on an ongoing basis; DCS misses the mark in most of its regional service areas.
Child Services Director Mary Beth Bonaventura said the state would be in compliance if Indiana were to limit caseloads to 17 families instead of 17 children. While changing the law might eliminate the distraction of trying to meet goals, the state must still ensure there is a sufficient number of trained, experienced caseworkers.
More important, it must continue to invest in prevention services reducing the need for abuse and neglect caseworkers. But Dee Szyndrowski, CEO of Stop Child Abuse and Neglect in Fort Wayne, said that DCS has directed the Network for Safe Families, a program providing short-term housing services, job search assistance, family-management and parenting training, to reduce its budget. Those services, available to at-risk families, help parents avoid the stress and situations that can place their children in danger.
Indiana can't ignore child abuse and neglect. Adults who hurt children or place them in harm's way don't go looking for help. Children who have been hurt or are in danger can't or don't seek help on their own. And even if abuse or neglect ends, children don't heal on their own. The damage remains or manifests itself elsewhere — in failure at school or in juvenile crime. It grows over time and begins to tax the system in lost wages and public assistance, or even law enforcement and court costs. In a worst-case scenario, the damage is passed on to a new generation.
Hoosiers have seen what happens when child abuse and neglect are ignored. Under former Director James Payne, the child protection agency returned $320 million of its 2009-11 budget allocation to the state treasury to balance the budget and create a surplus.
Some of the at-risk families who could have benefited from prevention or intervention services likely need help today. Some of the young teens abused six or seven years ago are parents themselves now. And DCS inevitably lost experienced case managers because of the push to cut costs.
Indeed, that $320 million invested five years ago could have gone a long way to protect or heal families today.