Monday, October 31, 2011

Report - More Indiana Children Die From Abuse, Neglect, Report Says

Child Advocates Chide Backslide In Children's Services

INDIANAPOLIS -- Federal statistics show that Indiana has one of the highest rates of child abuse and neglect in the nation, though Department of Child Services officials claim their statistics show progress.

Recent cases of child abuse deaths are indicative of how some Indiana children fall through the cracks, and federal reports obtained by Call 6 Investigator Joanna Massee are counter to DCS claims that the child welfare system is improving.

Some child advocates said they've seen some progress recently, but others said they are gravely concerned about recent abuse and neglect deaths and what they consider backsliding services.

Deaths Of Children Spur Concern

The cases of Devin Parsons and Christian Choate highlight what many consider to be the failings of DCS.

Greensburg police found Parsons, 12, fatally beaten in June. His mother, Tasha Parsons, and her boyfriend, Waldo Jones, were subsequently charged with murder.

Randy Parsons, Devin's great-uncle, said he wasn't aware of the extent of abuse that police said went on in the boy's home.

"You just never expect anything like that," Parsons said, adding that he didn't realize a DCS employee visited the boy's home days before his death. "I think the job wasn't finished."

Christian Choate, 13, also had a long history with DCS before his death earlier this year. According to the agency's records, Christian lived in a cage and received regular beatings during the last months of his life.

In May, investigators pulled Christian's body from a shallow grave in Gary. His father, Riley Choate, and his stepmother, Kimberly Kubina, were charged with murder.

Records obtained by the Call 6 Investigators showed that the families of both children had a long history with DCS.

DCS Director James Payne said he thinks his agency is better at protecting children than ever before, and he cautioned against using child fatalities as a measuring stick.

" First of all, nobody in the system looks at fatalities as a measure of whether or not the system itself is doing a good job in helping protect children," Payne said. "Often the fatalities occur without any contact before. Often they happen in circumstances that were unpredictable."

Child Welfare Tracking Systems Inconsistent

Nationwide, child safety workers criticized an inconsistent tracking system for child deaths.

Because federal and state reports cover different time periods, the numbers don't match, and that means the number of deaths can look like it's going up in one report and down in another.

For example, the most recent Child Maltreatment Report released by the Department of Health and Human Services showed an increase in the number of child deaths from 2008 to 2009. The federal government counted 34 deaths in 2008 and 50 deaths in 2009. The federal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.

The state's most recent Child Abuse and Neglect Report of Child Fatalities showed a decrease in the number of child deaths from 2008 to 2009. The state government counted 46 deaths in 2008 and 38 deaths in 2009. The state year runs from July 1 through June 30.

Payne said a better way to evaluate the system is to look at statistics, such as fewer children being placed in residential treatment.

"The system is much better now," Payne said.

DCS is focused on helping children thrive in the home because taking them out is very traumatic, Payne said.

But the cases that involved Devin and Christian indicate that leaving abused and neglected children in a home can also be devastating.

Child Advocates' Opinion Mixed

Privately, leading child advocates and service providers told Massee they disagree with Payne’s claims that the system is improving. Publicly, they choose their words carefully if they say anything at all, fearing retaliation.

Massee asked Payne if the culture at DCS discourages criticism within the agency.

"I suspect there is at some level," but not at the executive level, Payne responded.

David Sklar, who leads the Children’s Coalition of Indiana, an organization that works to support and lobby for children and families, said child advocates and service providers fear retaliation for voicing concerns about DCS.

"They're afraid to advocate for those clients because they're afraid that the state might look somewhere else to provide those contracts," Sklar said.

Sklar added that advocates are also concerned that the state is spending fewer dollars on therapeutic services that help address and prevent child abuse and neglect.

"We are starting to see a backslide," he said.

Last year, DCS gave back nearly $104 million to the state general fund, money that could have been used for children. Payne said the agency did not need the cash.

When Massee asked Payne about these spending decisions, he granted RTV6 unprecedented access to the agency, adamant that his system is working.

During a roundtable discussion with DCS employees, Massee asked case workers about the difficulties they face on the job.

Supervisor Melissa Clark said she has seen positive changes during her 17 years with DCS, but she also said the work comes with challenges.

"It can be a life and death decision that we're making," Clark said. "We do see some turnover. It is a stressful job. It's emotional. We deal with the crying child that's being removed from their parent."

Denise Brightman said she has spent 21 years working with families and worries about making a mistake "every day."

While workers such as Brightman and Clark can only control the cases assigned to them, State Rep. Bill Crawford, D-Indianapolis, said he is concerned with decisions being made at the top.

Crawford criticized the state’s decision to spend less on services for abused and neglected children in need.

"There are too many child advocates from around the state of Indiana who are crying foul," Crawford said.

Child advocates said the unspent funds could be used for services such as counseling for young abuse victims, clothing and food for foster kids and toward other services for families, such as those in which Christian and Devin once belonged.

Speaking privately, one leading child advocate told Massee, "This needs to be a call to action. The system will succeed when the private sector and public sector work together."


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