Breaking News: Herald-Times Highlights CASA and Child Welfare Issues – March 29, 2011

Are Indiana’s funding cuts hurting state’s abused and neglected children?
Some who work with kids say cuts are having an impact; state says services still available

By Dann Denny

Lorraine Merriman, a Court Appointed Special Advocate for 13 years(left)
Kristin Bishay, director of Monroe County Court Appointed Special Advocates(right)

Not long ago, the Monroe County Department of Child Services persuaded the Juvenile Court to remove several abused children from their home and put them into foster care. A few months later, a DCS caseworker got the court to close the case and return the children to their home.

“Just four months after that, the children had to once again be yanked out of the home,” said Kristin Bishay, director of Monroe County Court Appointed Special Advocates. “As a result, the children were traumatized and had their lives disrupted a second time.”

Bishay does not blame the caseworker. She, along with her board, feels a reduction in state funding is the real culprit.

She said state funding slashes are pressuring DCS caseworkers to ask judges to close cases – effectively removing themselves from the family’s life and cutting off all services – before a safe environment can be established for the children.

“We’re now seeing babies with illegal substances in their systems not being removed from homes, meaning they are being left in the care of mothers who are addicted to drugs,” she said. “That never used to happen, but with these budget cuts, it’s happening now.”

Bishay said limited funds have caused the DCS to come up with a new philosophy concerning drug-addicted parents.

“DCS now says that just because a mom is an addict, it does not necessarily mean she cannot parent her child safely, even though the very reason the child was removed to begin with is that she put the child in harm’s way through her drug use,” she said.

Ann Houseworth, director of communications for the state DCS office, said it’s true that in the past children born to addicted mothers were automatically removed from the home.

“But now we feel it can be harmful to remove a child during the most important time of his or her life, when the bonding experience between the baby and mom takes place,” she said. “We have changed the lens we use to look at these cases.”

Houseworth said DCS might try, for example, to bring a grandparent into the home of an addicted mother while the mother receives drug counseling, rather than remove the child from the home.

“But if the child can’t be kept safely in the home, we will remove the child,” she said.

Houseworth said the DCS is trying to dispel the notion that it’s eager to remove children from homes.

“A lot of people think when the DCS knocks on your door it says, ‘We.’e here to take your kids,’” she said. “We want people to know that when we knock on your door we say, ‘We’ve been told there is a problem here; how can we help you solve it?’”

Houseworth said state funding cuts had nothing to do with the change in the DCS’s position regarding the removal of children from homes with a drug-addicted parent, saying the assessment process is solely focused on the child, not on fiscal concerns. “DCS will not endanger the life of a child in order to save money,” she said. “The DCS practice model is focused on safety of the child, first and foremost. Family case managers assess each case based on its unique circumstances, seek input from the family involved, then make a decision ensuring the safety and best interests of the child.”

But Bishay and some other child advocates say the changes in DCS policy are the result of cuts in state funding to the Indiana Family and Children Fund – which pays for out-of-home placements and out-of-home and in-home services to abused and neglected children and juvenile delinquents. The state’s recommended appropriations for fiscal year 2012 are 25 percent lower than the year before.

Factors affect decisions

Monroe County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Galvin said DCS caseworkers must reconcile the needs of children with limited state funding when they make recommendations to the court.

“In addition to their financial limitations, they have a legal duty to try to help reunite children with their families, and I have to take that into account,” he said.

Court Appointed Special Advocates are specifically focused on the needs of children in court cases. They are trained volunteers who work with individual children as their legal cases wend their way through the system.

Lorraine Merriman, a CASA for 13 years, said the children she’s represented have always received sufficient services, but said other CASAs have told her that – due to new rules and regulations from the state DCS office – decisions are being made that are not in the best interest of the children.

“I’m not sure the state understands that this is not formulaic work,” she said. “Each family has a different dynamic.”

Bishay said if the DCS persuades the court to return children to unsafe home environments, it increases the likelihood that the youngsters will suffer more abuse or neglect, thus re-entering the child protection system. She cites a case in which children were returned to a home in which the parents had failed for nine months to comply with court-ordered therapy and anger management classes.

“Ten days later, one of the young children was physically harmed by a parent, and the children were removed again,” she said. “The trauma of the abuse was compounded by the trauma of being removed again.”

CASAs’ influence

Bishay said there are often occasions when a DCS caseworker wants the court to close a case before a CASA volunteer feels it’s appropriate to do so.

“The DCS worker might say to the judge that it has a safety plan in place and it’s OK to put the children back into the home, but the CASA volunteer may have uncovered facts showing it’s too soon,” she said. “On many occasions, at least in Monroe County, the CASA volunteer can persuade the judge to keep the kids out of the home.”

Galvin said the CASAs play an invaluable role by arming him with enough facts to make the best possible ruling. “They’re concerned that DCS caseworkers are not always concerned about the same things I’m concerned about,” he said.

Galvin adds that DCS caseworkers, who must simultaneously juggle multiple cases, can’t put as much time into each case as the CASAs.

“The CASAs are able to spend more time visiting with the children and family and gathering information than the caseworkers,” he said. “They keep me informed. They are the canary in the mine.”

Bishay said the problem of returning kids to unsafe homes is not as acute in Monroe County as in other Indiana counties because judges here are fierce child protection advocates.

CASA board member Janice Arvesen gave an example of a case two years ago in which an 11-month-old infant had been removed from a home after having suffered a broken bone. Arvesen said when the infant’s mother had another baby, the DCS caseworker felt it would be all right to allow the mother to take the newborn home with her.

“I felt strongly that the baby should not go home with the mom,” she said. “Fortunately, the judge agreed, and the baby was removed from the mother at the hospital and put into foster care.”

Galvin said in today’s world of bark-tight budgets, CASAs play a crucial role in providing information to the juvenile courts.

“They give voice to children who otherwise would have no voice.”

Fewer services?

Arvesen said state cuts are coercing DCS caseworkers to ask the court for fewer vital services for abused and neglected children and their parents.

“When a CASA goes to court and says a kid needs counseling, for example, the DCS caseworker might say, ‘Yes, we agree, but we don’t have the money to provide those services,’” she said.

Bishay said a court can order counseling for children, and such things as therapy, drug counseling and parenting classes for parents.

Arvesen said it’s not the fault of DCS caseworkers that they sometimes ask judges to provide scant services to families.

“They are doing their job the best they can with the money they have, but sometimes their hands are tied by lack of funds,” she said. “Unfortunately, because we are fighting so hard for these kids, it can erect a wall between us and the caseworkers.”

Galvin said he, too, is aware of the financial challenges faced by the DCS.

“The DCS is trying to be more frugal, and that will always cause strains in the system,” he said.

Galvin said he is ultimately responsible for determining what services are ordered, but the availability of those services is controlled by the state DCS.

“The DCS contracts with providers for all juvenile services I order,” he said. “I have seen some contraction of services in recent years, but all services are still available.”

Houseworth of the state DCS office said despite a decrease in state funding, the agency has not curtailed the services it provides to children and families.

“We still make every effort to ensure that children are kept safely in the home by working with community partners to provide additional services to them – things like intensive family therapy and parenting classes,” she said.

Houseworth said the DCS’s budgetary challenges are the concern of its fiscal staff and management team, not its case managers.

“There has been no directive from the DCS central office that programs and services should be limited due to funding issues,” she said.

Bishay said she believes the case managers feel constrained nonetheless by tight budgets. “The case managers tell us that’s the case under the table, but they can’t say that publicly without being fired,” she said.

Drug testing of addicted parents less frequent after state budget cuts
By Dann Denny

After children have been removed from a home because of their parents’ drug abuse, they are sometimes returned to the same home with a court order for the parents to submit to periodic, unannounced drug testing to make sure they’re staying clean.

“Seventy-five to 80 percent of our cases are in the system because at least one of the child’s parents is addicted to drugs,” said Kristin Bishay, director of the Monroe County Court Appointed Special Advocates program. “That’s why sporadic drug testing is so important.”

Bishay said court-ordered drug testing takes place much less frequently than before the budget cuts.

“Tests used to be routinely ordered two to three times a week,” she said. “Now, it’s usually twice a month. We are going to court almost every week, pleading for more frequent drug testing”.

Bishay said judges are keenly aware that even if more frequent testing were ordered, the Monroe County Department of Child Services often lacks the funding to pay for it.

Ann Houseworth, director of communications for the state DCS office, said there has been no directive from the state DCS office to ask judges for less frequent drug testing of addicted parents.

She said the state DCS has no set recommendation concerning the frequency of drug testing, saying that after an assessment of a particular case, DCS caseworkers make a drug-testing recommendation to the court based on the needs of the child and family – and CASAs, social workers and medical professionals also make recommendations.

“These recommendations are presented to the family court judge, who makes the final decision and orders the programs or services for each case,” she said.

But Monroe County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Galvin said it’s his understanding that the state DCS’s policy is to drug test addicted parents twice a month, which he said is less than in the past.

“For some families, twice a month is simply not frequent enough,” he said. “The DCS is trying to implement policies that can be applied statewide, but there is always going to be tension between a statewide policy and the individual needs of a family.”

Bishay said judges normally go along with DCS recommendations on drug testing because they don’t want to micromanage, but Galvin said he will order drug testing more often if he deems it appropriate. He said he looks at the person’s drug-use history, and relies heavily on feedback from the CASAs.

“The DCS caseworkers are trying to implement state policies, but the CASAs have no other duty than to represent the children,” he said.

Bishay said judges know that if they order DCS to drug test a parent several times a week, the DCS can appeal it to the Indiana Appellate Court, claiming it’s too frequent. “If that appeal goes in favor of the DCS, then the county has to pick up the tab for the drug testing,” Bishay said.

Bishay has another drug-testing beef with the DCS. She said the agency used to drug test parents by testing their hair follicles or urine, but now – because it’s cheaper – it uses an oral swab. Depending on how many drugs the tests try to detect, urine screens generally cost $25 to $35 and oral swab tests cost $15 to $25.

“DCS claims the oral swab can detect a wider variety of drugs,” she said. “But the hair follicle test can determine if someone used drugs in the past 2 to 3 months, whereas the oral swab goes back a couple days.”

Houseworth said the DCS switched to the oral swab because it is more accurate, and because urine tests were found to be obtrusive – not because swab tests are less expensive.

“The rationale for the change to swab tests is to not only to allow our family case managers to administer tests at the scene of an incident or assessment but also to ensure the accuracy of those tests,” she said. “If the swab tests are in fact less expensive than the urine tests, then the decision was prudent from both an accuracy and monetary perspective.”

One day: 45 cases in juvenile court
Judge listens to many sources in cases about parents, children

Judge Steve Galvin

Judge Steve Galvin

A black-robed Judge Steve Galvin is sitting on his elevated bench in the Monroe County juvenile courtroom.

On his desk are two 12-inch-high stacks of folders representing the 45 cases he will preside over today.

The cases will vary in nature – from “initial hearings” in which he advises parents of their rights; to “review hearings” in which he reviews how cases are going; and “permanency hearings” to determine the permanent placement of a child.

In the courtroom are attorneys, Monroe County Department of Child Services representatives and Court Appointed Special Advocates – who are here to provide the judge with pertinent information about the children and their families.

One review hearing involves a case in which parental rights have been terminated for the parents of two children, who are now living with foster parents who are considering adopting them.

It has come to the court’s attention that something disturbing recently happened between two of the foster parents’ adopted children that may pose a threat to the two foster children.

The CASA, Lyndsay Miller, tells Galvin the foster parents are wonderful parents, and are handling the situation well.

Miller says she has talked to both children at length and has not seen any evidence of trauma. She suggests that the family follow a plan to ensure the children’s safety, and that the court not take any further action until a therapist can determine how the incident may have affected the children.

The DCS attorney concurs that the foster parents are excellent parents, and that the court should not remove the children from the home.

Galvin agrees, but adds, “I don’t want to see a repeat of this (the incident). And if the therapist finds the children are having any concerns about what happened, I want to know about it.” Later, the issue is a foster couple who want to adopt a preschool child with severe health challenges. The parental rights of the child’s parents have been terminated.

Galvin asks why the adoption has not yet taken place. The CASA, Gary Friedman, says the adoption is being delayed while negotiations take place between the DCS and the foster parents concerning the cost of services for the child.

“I trust you will consider giving them whatever they want,” Galvin said, directing his comments at the DCS attorney. “The fact that this couple is willing to adopt a child with so many medical needs is extraordinary. The child should not have to wait to be adopted while negotiations take place.”

Next up is a review hearing involving a teenager who’s had a traumatic upbringing and has spent many years in foster homes and residential care facilities. She’s on several medications to help her cope with mental health issues.

The CASA, Danie Norris, asks Galvin to suspend some of the teen’s medications so she can have a new psychological evaluation. Norris said she wonders whether some of the teen’s mental problems might be caused by some of her medications.

“I am loathe to order a change in medications,” Galvin says. “But I would like the DCS and CASA and doctors to consider talking about her medications.”

Then the teen, on speakerphone from her residential care facility, asks Galvin when she will be able to leave.

“My main concern is you and your safety,” he says. “I want you to complete your treatment where you are, but my goal is to get you in a stable living condition.”

During one hearing that did not involve a CASA, Galvin sternly rebuked a DCS worker for not reporting to the court that the agency had moved a child from one setting to another within 24 hours of the move – something that is required by law.

“You waited two weeks to inform the court,” he says. “If that happens again, I will hold you in contempt.”