INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Eric Holcomb on Thursday called for a “complete assessment” of Indiana’s child welfare agency, more than a week after the agency’s outgoing chief accused his administration of actions that “all but ensure children will die.”
In a news release, Holcomb also announced that a Riley Children’s Hospital nurse, Terry J. Stigdon, would replace Mary Beth Bonaventura as the director of the Department of Child Services.
Child welfare advocates were skeptical, saying Bonaventura only recently resigned and a quick appointment by Holcomb suggests the decision was made without conducting a thorough search.
“I’ve never heard of her,” said Marion County juvenile court Judge Marilyn A. Moores, a Republican who deals with DCS cases day-in day-out. “I had hoped that there would be a nationwide search for an expert in child welfare. In the middle of a crisis, having to train somebody from the ground up is going to be difficult.”
The number of U.S. children placed in foster care has surged as states struggle to address the opioid epidemic and help addicted parents who can’t care for their kids. But the problem is particularly acute in certain states, including Indiana.
Republicans have increased funding for the agency by over $500 million in recent years, but the increases belie deep cuts made to the agency roughly a decade ago.
In a scathing resignation letter, Bonaventura accused the Republican governor’s administration of cutting services and making management changes that stripped her of any authority.
“I choose to resign, rather than be complicit in decreasing the safety, permanency and well-being of children who have nowhere else to turn,” she wrote.
Holcomb has not addressed her specific points, but his allies say Bonaventura was a poor manager of the DCS bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, children’s advocates, foster parents and even the department’s own annual report paint a grim picture of an agency in perpetual triage with a workforce spread so thin that caseworkers have no choice but to cut corners.
Holcomb said his administration will work with the nonprofit Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group to conduct a review of how DCS is being operated. There are several questions he wants to explore, including:
—Are caseloads appropriate for staffing levels?
—Is funding being used in the best way to “serve children and taxpayers?”
—Are DCS outcomes “appropriate” for the services provided?
—How do child service case outcomes in Indiana compare to other states?
The findings of the review are expected to be forwarded to his office in spring of 2018.
Thursday’s announcement comes after a week of punishing headlines for the first-year governor, who appeared to be caught flatfooted by Bonaventura’s criticism. Bonaventura, a well-respected former Lake County juvenile judge was appointed in 2013 by then-Gov. Mike Pence and has more than 36-years of experience in the field.
Stigdon, her replacement, has a master’s in nursing and is currently the clinical director of operation at Riley, where she has worked since 1998. She started at the hospital as a pediatric intensive care nurse.
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