SOUTH BEND -- Parents, grandparents and a pastor waited their turns. A judge, the president of a local agency and school social workers waited to speak, too.
But as they told their stories Thursday night to two legislators who are studying ways to improve Indiana's Department of Child Services, the names of two people who were not there were spoken, as well: former DCS Director James Payne, who recently resigned amid scandal, and Tramelle Sturgis, the 10-year-old South Bend boy beaten to death by his father nearly a year ago.
State Sens. John Broden, D-South Bend, and Carlin Yoder, R-Goshen, invited local residents to discuss how the state's child protection system might be improved, during a standing-room-only hearing at Ivy Tech State College.
The often-emotional testimony contained some common themes -- especially accountability, transparency and money.
St. Joseph Probate Judge Peter Nemeth has been open about his frustration with changes in the last several years. That was when DCS became its own agency under Payne, who pushed through initiatives that included hiring more caseworkers and centralizing decision-making.
"When you have a centralized bureaucracy controlling everything, it eliminates innovation," Nemeth said, to applause. "The law requires me to do what's in the best interests of the child. I can no longer do what's in the best interests of the child because of the bureaucracy that's been created."
DCS took over setting rates for providers statewide and limiting local options available to help children, Nemeth said, all in the name of saving money.
"It's not really saving money. The problems are still there," the judge said. "Unfortunately, they're being dumped into our juvenile justice system and our Department of Corrections. ... Our detention center is sometimes like a psych ward because of the problems there."
Nemeth also called for the centralized child abuse hotline to be returned to local call centers; for prosecutors to be able to declare children wards of the state, to provide checks and balances to DCS; and for another agency -- not DCS -- to determine rates and license service providers.
One woman described her frustration with the system and how the story of Tramelle Sturgis, whose father beat and tortured him in the basement of the family's home, sickened her.
She told the two legislators they "need to get on the ball and work a little faster. ... Now, not six months. There could be another Tramelle, in a basement somewhere, dead."
About the money
The Family and Children's Center in Mishawaka has drastically whittled down programs and staff for the last two years in the face of DCS cuts -- and announced the closing next month of the rest of its outpatient therapy programs.
Bruce Greenberg, the president of FCC, told the two senators that as of Nov. 26, the agency will end all outpatient services, transferring them to Oaklawn.
The agency has lost $3.5 million in the last seven years, cutting wages and services and increasing donations, he said -- at a time when waiting lists for community agencies already exist, and while DCS was returning millions of dollars to state coffers.
Greenberg said Payne's rule was one of "no balance of power and authority" and suggested that DCS report to an oversight committee.
"DCS needs to be honest with the public about their cuts to providers," Greenberg said. "Their public relations ploys are no longer working."
He and others referred to DCS not paying its own bills on time.
Nemeth said the county's probation department "is spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get DCS to pay its bills. It's crazy."