Among the things to celebrate this holiday season are signs of real, sustained progress in protecting and caring for Indiana's most vulnerable children. Those in the forefront of that effort deserve our thanks – and our continued support.
For years, reports about Indiana's child-welfare system were almost uniformly distressing. More and more children entered the system as the state's drug crisis worsened. The state scrimped on funding. The Indiana Department of Child Services staff was overwhelmed, underresourced and demoralized, and the department was blamed for failing to prevent some horrific tragedies.
As the opioid crisis devastated families, an abnormally high percentage of children were being removed from their homes, and private agencies struggled to enlist enough foster families to handle the flood. A succession of governors and legislatures dithered and demanded more studies. It was hard to imagine that things would change.
Last week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported that the percentage of children being adopted as they left foster care had risen in 30 states, including Indiana. Taken alone, those numbers seemed to reflect more of the same: Indiana's 17% adoption rate from foster care still lagged far behind the national average, 24%.
Other numbers, though, would suggest the outcomes for foster children in Indiana are improving more rapidly than in other states.
“The question becomes, what is the goal of the child welfare system, and where are they if they're not adopted,” said Chris Daley, executive director of the Indiana Association of Resources and Child Advocacy. “When we say we're low on adoption, it's because we're returning more children to live with their biological parents.”
It's true. Indiana, despite all the child-policy problems of recent years, reconnects 69% of its foster children with their parents, primary caregivers or relatives; nationally, that number is 56%. Combined with a big drop in the number of those classified as children in need of services, that means a lot of families have been preserved or reunified. “Indiana families have stepped up more than those in other states,” Daley said in an interview Tuesday. “Ninety-five percent of our kids are in a home environment. When that's possible, that's always the goal.”
“There are many positive things at play, including the adoption piece,” Sharon Pierce, president and CEO of The Villages, Indiana's largest private foster-placement organization, said in an interview Wednesday. “We're going in the right direction.”
Continuing that progress requires continued focus by policymakers. Last spring, the legislature dedicated more funds to the Department of Child Services; Terry Stigdon, the department's director, is using some of that to bolster private foster-placement agencies. In January, such organizations will receive the first increase in their reimbursement rates in more than a decade, an increase that will be particularly welcome because a recent auditing review has held up payments to these typically shoestring-budget nonprofits. The department is said to be planning to increase support for those who provide crucial home-based services for foster and reuniting families, as well. Better reimbursement for foster families deserves ongoing attention, too.
Foster agencies are still looking for families willing to care for foster children, of course. “They are vital bridges to create a safe environment for kids,” Pierce said. The Villages wants to have a strong “bench” of families in order to match them with children ethnically and geographically. This helps minimize the disruption to young lives, allowing kids who have been taken from their family homes to remain in the same school district, for instance.
But you can share in easing the plight of Indiana's most vulnerable children without making such a major commitment.
“There are an innumerable number of ways in which people can help,” Daley said. Advocates suggest dropping off meals to foster families, or offering a contribution to a foster agency's food bank or to cover such expenses as diapers for families whose state reimbursements are usually below the expenses they face in raising foster children. Religious groups, PTOs and neighborhoods can host dinners or movie nights for foster or kinship-care families.
During the holiday season, arrange to donate a gift card so a foster teen can treat himself or herself to a movie. Or, says Pierce, “if you know someone who is fostering, reach out and say, 'How can I help?'
“Those are huge gifts” for a fostering family, Pierce said. “It's an affirmation for those who have opened their hearts and opened their homes.”
Too, it's what the holiday season is all about.
By the numbers
The number of those listed by the state as children in need of services has been dropping dramatically.
In October 2017, there were 23,965 children receiving in-home or out-of-home services statewide, of whom 2,422 were in northeast Indiana.
Last month, the number statewide was 17,732, a 26% decrease; in northeast Indiana, it was 1,647, down 32%.
To learn more
To find ways to help or to connect with services, phone the Indiana Association of Resources and Child Advocacy, at (317) 849-8497, or go to the organization's website, iarca.org, and click “resources and referral.”