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The Journal Gazette

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Thursday, September 07, 2017 1:00 am

Editorials

Problem of numbers: Children ultimate losers in understaffing of DCS

State law dictates caseload numbers for child protection workers. But who enforces state law?

Not the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled it can't force the Indiana Department of Child Services to follow caseload limits. Not DCS, which argued in defending the case it can't “wave a magic wand” and come up with the money to hire enough caseworkers. And not the Indiana General Assembly, which set the caseload limits in law but hasn't provided enough money to meet them.

So what happens to the state's most vulnerable children – the ones left hanging in the balance?

That's the question Hoosiers should be asking in the wake of the court decision last week. Do child protection laws mean anything if there's no enforcement?

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana represented case manager Mary Price in her lawsuit against DCS and its director. In a unanimous decision, the state's highest court wrote that, while state law dictates no caseworker can simultaneously oversee more than 17 children receiving services for abuse and neglect, the law does not require the agency to perform a specific action to meet the caseload, making it “not amenable to judicial mandate.”

Price filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in July 2015, after her caseload had grown to 43 children. Her complaint was dismissed by a trial court but reversed by a divided Court of Appeals. 

The appeals court noted the caseload maximums are “not an aspirational goal but a clear and definite number to attain.”

“We agree with Price that the matter before us concerns a systemic deficiency which is not unique to her but is experienced by hundreds of caseworkers in Indiana,” according to the majority opinion.

Before the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Thomas Fisher, representing DCS, did not contest the caseload numbers, but instead argued the funding provided by the General Assembly wasn't enough to meet required caseloads.

The legislature approved an additional $200 million in DCS funding over the next two years, but there are no assurances it will allow the agency to meet caseload limits.

If money is the issue, lawmakers are doing a disservice to both children and taxpayers. Victims of child abuse and neglect are about nine times more likely to become involved in criminal activity, according to research from the U.S. Department of Justice.

They are 25 percent more likely to experience teen pregnancy. About 30 percent of the victims will go on to abuse their own children.

A New York study found every dollar spent on a caseworker's home visit yielded a $5.70 return on investment, reducing verified reports of abuse, reduced costs for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, decreased emergency room visits, decreased arrest rates for mothers and increased monthly earnings.

If children's lives and welfare weren't at stake, the bureaucratic dodge would be frustrating. But the risk to children doesn't end with the suit's dismissal, and the number of children at risk only grows with the state's drug addiction epidemic.

“There's a problem here that still hasn't been solved, and we'll need to see if there's other ways to resolve it,” Ken Falk, legal director for the ACLU of Indiana, said of the ruling.