GOSHEN -- As some state lawmakers on Thursday took aim at the Department of Child Services, the agency's director told a group of child welfare advocates that recent changes have allowed DCS to investigate more complaints while seeing fewer child fatalities.
"Change is the way of the world," James Payne told the crowd at the fourth annual Community Summit on Children in Goshen. "...We are changing as a system -- nationally and as a state."
Payne said the department plans to release numbers next week showing that Indiana had 25 substantiated child fatalities in 2011, and only four involved families with previous DCS contact, a decrease from previous years.
"If we have any number up there, it is too many, we all know that," Payne said, referring to the number of fatalities with previous DCS contact. "But what has happened is that fatalities have gone down because communities and families are working together."
But some state lawmakers are not satisfied with those numbers. Four Democrats, including Rep. B. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, said Thursday they want more transparency and changes in the way the state deals with reports of child abuse and neglect, according to a report in the Indianapolis Star.
The lawmakers called for Republicans to act quickly on bills proposing changes to DCS, including amendments that would add more oversight.
"Cases are being labeled as unsubstantiated and records are being purged, leading to a lack of transparency in reporting and a lack of adequate record keeping to catch repeat abusers," Bauer said in a statement. "We believe that we should not leave this session before significant changes are made to improve this system and protect children."
Payne did not mention the legislative wrangling in his talk, nor did he address the recent stories published in Indiana newspapers including the South Bend Tribune, which lawmakers have referenced in their arguments for more transparency and changes in the system.
In his 40-minute address, Payne touted DCS data reflecting the department's strengthened philosophy of keeping at-risk children in homes or with relatives as much as possible: a 210 percent increase in children being served in-home; a 118 percent increase in children placed with relatives; and a 52 percent decrease in children placed in "congregate care," or residential placement, over a three-year period.
Payne also discussed the department's new centralized call center in Indianapolis, which receives all reports of abuse and neglect from the abuse and neglect hotline. The call center has received some criticism in recent weeks after reports that more allegations of abuse are being screened out and not investigated since the call center was created.
Payne offered different data. He said that since the launch of the hotline in 2010, the department has increased the number of investigations it has completed -- from 56,448 to 76,092.
"We've gone out far more (to investigate)," Payne said, "in part because of the economy but in part because our policy is to see what we can do to help families."
Payne was one of several speakers at Thursday's summit, which also included speeches from children who were saved from abusive homes by DCS -- including one boy who was in 15 different homes as a child and was once left on a railroad track as an infant, and a young girl who suffered sexual abuse in her home.
The children paused periodically as they spoke to keep from crying, and many in the audience wiped their eyes.
"It's painful to hear it, but it forces us not to forget that what we're dealing with isn't statistics -- it's children," said Elkhart County Juvenile Magistrate Deborah Domine, who helped organize the summit.
"We need to plug the hole so children don't fall through the safety net," Domine said. "... And we do that better when we work together."
Staff writer Mary Kate Malone:
DCS director touts new data
Legislators call for changes before session ends
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