Sunday alcohol sales might have looked like the most pressing issue when legislative leaders chose Senate Bill 1 – generally reserved for the session's top priority – as the vehicle to make it happen. But leadership surely had not seen Mary Beth Bona-ventura's unsettling resignation letter at the time.
When they convene Wednesday, we trust child protection will have moved to the top of the watch list for the General Assembly. The Dec. 12 resignation letter from the director of the Indiana Department of Child Services was a plaintive call to action. Gov. Eric Holcomb deserves a chance to address Bonaventura's charges, but lawmakers should be prepared to step in again if his efforts fall short.
“I feel I am unable to protect children because of the position taken by your staff to cut funding and services to children in the midst of the opioid crisis,” Bonaventura wrote to the governor. “I choose to resign, rather than be complicit in decreasing the safety, permanency and well-being of children who have nowhere else to turn.”
Strong words that appear to have resonated with Holcomb. The governor quickly filled the vacancy. Terry J. Stigdon, a Riley Children's Hospital administrator and pediatric nurse, will begin work Jan. 22.
Holcomb would be wise to allow Stigdon to hire her own chief of staff, given that Bonaventura's sharpest criticism was directed at Eric Miller, who joined the department at the direction of the governor's office and – according to the outgoing director – bullied subordinates, defied her authority and made cost-cutting decisions without regard to consequences.
Poor decisions in child protection can be costly in both lives and dollars. Under the guidance of James Payne, Bonaventura's predecessor, 21 percent of Indiana child fatalities resulting from abuse or neglect involved children who had prior contact with the department. The previous administration also was responsible for a case in which a Pulaski County mother and father were falsely accused in the death of their daughter – a case that resulted in a $31.3 million judgment against the state.
Holcomb has called for an assessment of the department to begin immediately. The Alabama-based Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group should be finished in the spring. That's after the General Assembly adjourns its short session, but Cathleen Graham, who oversaw child welfare services under Gov. Evan Bayh's administration, said there are safeguards in place to protect at-risk children, whose numbers continue to increase under the grip of the opioid epidemic.
“There is an ability in the budget bill for the Family and Children Fund to be augmented without the legislature having to make a special appropriation,” Graham said in an interview Friday. “That's what happened in June at the end of the state fiscal year.”
In addition, there is a child welfare oversight committee in place under the Indiana Commission on Improving the Status of Children. The committee grew out of the General Assembly's interim study committee report in 2012, when the legislature stepped in to address problems at the department. With Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, as its chair, the panel is in position to respond if necessary.
“It's also important to recognize there are strong leaders at the local level, and those DCS workers are on the job,” said Graham, now executive director of the Indiana Association of Resources and Child Advocacy. “The same is true for (child-service) providers. We're there 24/7 working with these children and families and trying to deal with trauma, and either reunify those kids with their families or try to find relatives or adoptive families.”
And even with alcohol regulation at the center of their legislative agenda, lawmakers clearly are aware children are hurting. Republican and Democratic House leaders have teamed up with Graham's agency to promote foster care and adoption during the session. We know they will step in if the Holcomb administration falters.