When Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned as director of the Indiana Department of Child Services in mid-December, she blamed internal cost-cutting moves and policies that would “all but ensure children will die.”
Local activists say her prophecy came true within weeks, at least in Allen County. There have been six child homicides this year. If Malakai Garrett's Nov. 29 death is included, there have been seven in the last five months.
Of the six this year, one was ruled accidental, one was a near-term fetus shot inside his mother and two were allegedly beaten to death. The fifth, Darius Marcel Boone, 14, died last week at the hands of a friend with a gun.
The latest homicide ruling came Friday on 2-year-old Jocelyn “JoJo” Belcher, who was pronounced dead at her home on East Butler Street on Jan. 27. She died from neck compression, the coroner said.
Families of several of the young victims say they warned DCS that abuse was taking place before the children died. Officials with the Foster Parent Association of Allen County say structural changes are needed in the child protection system.
“My guess is (DCS is) spread too thin,” said Denise Durnell, vice president of the Foster Parent Association.
Local DCS offices are hampered by a centralized call system created in 2010 and based in Indianapolis, where decisions on local children are made, said Durnell and the association's president, Angela Arambula.
“Everything should stay in their own county,” Durnell said. “You have 92 counties calling into one centralized center. You have people not in your community determining what goes on in your community.”
A Fort Wayne detective, who asked not to be named, said at the time the call system was created each county had its own system, and state officials felt the system needed consistency. He now says the call center creates obstacles to local law enforcement trying to protect children.
“DCS centralized the call center to have a single point of contact across the state for making a report of abuse or neglect,” wrote department spokeswoman Erin Murphy in an email response. “A central call center also implements a consistent process and documentation.”
To that stress, add the opioid crisis, which has been blamed for a 66 percent increase statewide in the number of children going into foster care between 2014 and 2017, said Cathleen Graham, executive director of Indiana Association of Resources and Child Advocacy. The number of children placed outside their home went from 9,950 in 2014 to 16,490 in 2017.
Child in Need of Services cases for DCS Region 4, which includes Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Huntington, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, Wells and Whitley counties, were 17,756 in 2014, according to the department's website. In 2017, there were 27,906 cases.
Information supplied by the state shows a surge in the need for case managers. Based on legislative guidelines, Allen County needs 139 case managers and has 109. In 2014, Allen County needed 85 and had 82.
At an Oct. 16 Region 4 meeting, Michelle Savieo, Allen County DCS director, said the department had seen “a drastic increase in the number of cases that we serve.”
Savieo's office was “meeting with the judges, looking at cases and what it's going to take to move some of these cases through so they don't get stuck in the system,” she said during the meeting.
The department hired five family case managers in October, three more were to start in November and four in December, the meeting notes state.
The strategy outlined included separate local department units working more closely together “to see if that will help with communication and transferring cases more smoothly,” according to the meeting notes.
Contacted by The Journal Gazette, Savieo declined to comment and referred calls to the department's Indianapolis office. Savieo will transfer to the central office after May 7, Murphy said.
Calls for help
Several weeks after the October meeting, Malakai Garrett, 2, was rushed to the hospital with internal injuries and outward signs of bruising. Mitchell Vanryn, the live-in boyfriend of Malakai's mother, Amber Garrett, was charged with his murder. She was charged with two counts of felony neglect.
Lantz Garrett, Malakai's father, and other family members said they repeatedly warned DCS what was happening to the toddler.
Last month, after the alleged beating deaths of 10-week-old Lxzander Carrillo and 5-year-old Benjamyn Otto McKinney Frederick, 5-month-old Caroline Moran was rushed to the hospital March 14 after she stopped breathing. Emergency surgery saved her life, said her grandmother, Jamie Lucas, who has temporary custody.
Dakota Moran, Caroline's father, was charged two days later with battery causing serious bodily injury and is being held at the Allen County Jail in lieu of $50,000 bail. Moran served time in prison in 2015 for possessing methamphetamine, court documents show.
Lucas said she called DCS to report abuse in late January.
Lucas didn't like what was going on between her daughter, Anastasia Gallatch, and her boyfriend, Moran, even before Caroline was born Oct. 9. By January, Lucas believed Caroline to be in danger.
Drug use also concerned Lucas. She said she called the department in late January and was directed to the Indianapolis call center. A local caseworker was assigned and visited Anastasia's home, Lucas said. Three different case managers have now been assigned to her case, Lucas said.
Lucas was awarded emergency guardianship after Caroline underwent emergency surgery for a brain bleed. Doctors said Caroline was developmentally delayed by three months, Lucas said.
Efforts to reach Gallatch were unsuccessful.
After the fiery resignation of Bonaventura, an evaluation of the department was ordered by Gov. Eric Holcomb. The full report is expected in June.
In February, the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, which is conducting the evaluation, said a priority should be an updated data system.
In March, an external review identified five areas where there were concerns, including a lack of agency-employed attorneys to handle cases of abused and neglected children. The review questioned whether front line staff had enough knowledge to do their jobs.
“These have been issues for a while,” said Arambula, a foster parent for 12 years who is on the emergency call list for temporary fostering. “I want this to be a good, positive change. These are our children of the future. They need to come first.”
Child homicides in Allen and Huntington counties
Nov. 29: Malakai Garrett, 2, beaten (live-in boyfriend charged with murder)
Jan. 5: Deborah Kay Schwartz, 8, shot with a BB gun (non-prosecutable)
Jan. 20: Baby Boy Gould, in vitro, gunshot (visitor charged with murder)
Jan. 27: Jocelyn Belcher, 2, neck compression (charges pending)
March 8: Benjamyn Otto McKinney Frederick, 5, beaten (live-in boyfriend charged with murder)
March 12: Lxzander Carrillo, 10 weeks, beaten (father charged with murder)
March 25: Persephone Amelia Tucker, two months, shaken and thrown (Huntington County) Region 4 (father charged with neglect of a dependent resulting in death and aggravated battery resulting in death)
Average monthly number of calls at the Indianapolis call center
March 2018: 738
February 2018: 764
January 2018: 686