Monday, January 23, 2012

Star Watch: Could deaths of Indiana children have been prevented?

Bogger note:

Sometimes parents are at fault in child abuse and neglect cases. In many of those cases, CPS fails the children for a number of reasons, none of which are reasonable or make any kind of sense - simply - CPS failed. It's a shame that children who are in truly abusive homes are suffering which sometimes leads to their death whild children who are not in abusive homes are kidnapped by CPS and sold to the highest bidder. Seems that CPS should stop the baby selling business and focus on the job that they were originally intended to do - protecting children. We question if CPS has any idea how to do their jobs and how they deem homes safe and etc. Seems that they fail miserably at their job.

Investigation raises questions about whether Department of Child Services could have done more to protect kids

Written by Tim Evans

Taylor Creech, 5 months old.

Nygell Easter, 6 months old.

Julian Hurley, 4 years old.

Devin Parsons, 12 years old.

Tramelle Sturgis, 10 years old.

Irdessa Vazquez, 6 months old.

Six Hoosier children -- white, black and Hispanic, from small towns and big cities. All dead.

Their short, disparate lives are connected by one common thread: the Indiana Department of Child Services.

Before each of these children died last year, concerns about their care and treatment were reported -- repeatedly, in some cases -- to the state agency responsible for investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect.

In some cases, DCS determined the allegations did not merit an investigation. In others, the agency opened investigations but was unable to make contact with the family or found no problems -- case closed. And in two of the deaths, DCS had open cases at the time the children were killed.

But in each case -- and despite evidence of mounting trouble -- DCS ultimately left the children with their parents.

The 2011 fatalities uncovered by The Indianapolis Star raise questions about the quality of the agency's investigations and safety assessments, as well as with the services provided to struggling families.

It is not child deaths alone, however, that suggest lingering problems. There are other troubling indicators that the system is still failing too many Hoosier children:

The rate at which children suffer repeat abuse or neglect within six months of a DCS intervention -- a telling and nationally recognized measure -- remains basically unchanged from 2004 at about 8 percent. The federal government has a target standard of 5.4 percent, which 27 states met in 2010. Twelve states had a higher re-abuse rate than Indiana.

Despite a significant increase in the number of reports made to DCS, the agency is investigating a smaller percentage of the reports it receives -- and it is substantiating a smaller percentage of the cases that are investigated.

Altogether, the issues raise serious questions about the ambitious and costly reform project initiated in 2005 by Gov. Mitch Daniels to fix Indiana's long-troubled child welfare system and protect vulnerable children.

Despite hiring nearly 800 new field workers, setting caseload limits and expanding training, it is not clear that children involved with DCS are any safer now than they were before the overhaul.

"Clearly," said state Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, "the system is still broken."

In a written response to questions submitted by The Star, DCS spokeswoman Ann Houseworth disagreed.

"We are providing better outcomes for kids," she said.

Houseworth cited the added caseworkers, a centralized call center that provides uniformity in response to reports of abuse and neglect, a reduction in the number of children placed outside of their homes, and a decrease in the number of children who languish in the system for years with no permanent homes.

The agency's work was honored last week by Casey Family Programs for excellence in leadership, in part because of its efforts to decrease the number of children in institutional and foster care.

The approach DCS calls "Safely Home-Families First" is a concept that is gaining acceptance in child welfare circles across the country. It is based on research that shows the trauma of being torn from family can be as devastating to a child as some forms of neglect and abuse.

The key to success in the "family preservation" approach, according to experts, is making sure that there is a thorough and accurate assessment of a family's challenges and strengths -- and that adequate services are available to ensure that the problems of parents are addressed so their children can safely remain at home.

Houseworth acknowledged "DCS is concerned" about its inability to reduce the re-abuse rate but said the agency has no control over the behavior of parents once a case is closed.

Others have an idea why the rate hasn't budged.

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, is an outspoken proponent of keeping families together while working through their problems. He said the state's inability to reduce re-abuse indicates DCS is not providing adequate or appropriate services to families.

"The question is: What is DCS doing before a case is closed?" he said. "It sounds to me like DCS lacked the competence to build the programs that are needed."

Intensive services that are proven to keep children safe don't come cheap, Wexler said.

That said, DCS officials have given back $320 million since 2009 to the state treasury -- including $103 million in 2011.

That was money lawmakers earmarked to help abused and neglected children but instead was used, at the governor's urging, to help bolster the state's balance sheet during the economic downturn. And it happened as reports of abuse and neglect increased in the state.

"The money DCS 'threw away' may well have helped children and families," Wexler said, "if it had been spent for the right kinds of programs."

Houseworth said returning the money has not caused children to suffer.

"Our goal is not just to spend money on services," she said. "We're charged with providing appropriate services children need and at the same time use our dollars wisely."

How that money is spent to help families is determined by a team -- which includes DCS staff, family members and local service providers -- that works to identify the kinds of help a troubled family needs.

The bulk of the money that was returned by DCS was not the result of skimping on those types of services, Houseworth said. Rather, it was not needed because of the significant savings provided by slashing the number of children placed in residential facilities. The cost for such services can run as high as $100,000 a year per child.

But state Rep. William Crawford, D-Indianapolis, said common sense makes him think some of the cases in which children died -- and many others across the state where children suffered repeat abuse and neglect -- might have turned out differently if DCS had used more of the money to better monitor and help those families.

"Their mantra is that they are doing more with less," he said, "but that doesn't appear to be working for the children."

Crawford has filed legislation to create a Commission on Improving the Status of Children, which would monitor and review state services and programs -- including those of DCS -- and produce an annual report detailing the state's successes and shortcomings.

"You have to wonder," said Crawford, "if (DCS) didn't put vulnerable children in jeopardy just so the governor could say 'look at what the state has in the bank' when he leaves office."

Breaux also questioned whether the agency's budget decisions have been in the best interest of children and families.

"It just breaks my heart when I hear those stories about children dying," she said. "It seems to me that DCS would want to keep as many dollars as it could to protect and help children."

How were concerns handled?
Each of the six deaths investigated by The Star highlights one or more continuing concerns about the agency's work.

There are likely many other victims. The Star's investigation has found at least 17 other deaths over the past five years -- DCS says that's not something the agency tracks -- including many that revealed the same problems that showed up in the 2011 cases.

Clearly, DCS is not solely responsible for the deaths; it was the abuse and neglect that killed the children. But there had been desperate cries for help calling these very children and adults to the attention of DCS.

The death of Devin Parsons, a Greensburg boy who had just completed the fourth grade, raises questions about the agency's increasing push to leave children with troubled parents and the quality of services DCS provides to those families.

Devin's mother had been investigated for allegations of abuse or neglect at least 18 times since Devin was born in 1999, including nine reports in the last year of his life. The agency repeatedly ordered Tasha Parsons to participate in counseling and other services but never removed Devin or his siblings -- even after the Greensburg boy told a caseworker in April that he was afraid to go back home.

A little more than one month later, police say, Devin was savagely beaten to death by his mother and her boyfriend.

The death of Nygell Easter in Indianapolis raises questions about the sufficiency of DCS investigations at a time when the agency is citing parents in a smaller percentage of the reports it investigates.

Nygell was 3 months old when he ended up at an Indianapolis hospital in December 2010. Medical personnel suspected abuse and called DCS. The agency opened an investigation. But it was closed with an "unsubstantiated" finding in January 2011 after the family blamed Nygell's older brother for the injury.

Less than two months later, Nygell was dead. Once again, his family tried to blame Nygell's fatal head injury on his 1-year-old brother. An investigation by police and the coroner, however, determined the injury could not have happened the way the family described, and his father -- who was convicted one year earlier for sexual misconduct with a minor -- faces murder charges.

The death of Taylor Creech in Columbia City raises questions about the urgency and tenacity with which DCS investigates reports, and also the agency's collaboration with law enforcement.

Before Taylor was born, family members said DCS had removed two of Janele Creech's other children because of her drug use. In November 2010, Janele's sisters turned to Janele's probation officer and DCS, reporting Taylor was in danger because their sister was making and using methamphetamine around her new baby.

They said the report prompted DCS to send a caseworker to Creech's home. But when no one answered the door, the worker left a card with a note asking Creech to call the agency. She didn't. Instead, Creech basically went into hiding, avoiding contact with her family.

Creech subsequently failed a mandatory probation department drug test on Dec. 23, 2010, but a warrant for her arrest was not issued for an additional week -- and probation officials apparently did not notify DCS.

Three days after a judge issued the warrant for Creech's arrest, she still had not been picked up for the probation violation or contacted by DCS -- and Taylor was dead.

The coroner told her aunts the baby died after a case of bronchitis. Creech had allowed it to go untreated while trying to avoid authorities, and it developed into sepsis. That condition pushed poisons into Taylor's bloodstream, contributing to her suffocation as she slept on a sofa with Creech's boyfriend.

"You hear all the time that if you suspect abuse or neglect, you need to report it," said Taylor's aunt, Michele Freewalt, who went to the Whitley County DCS office to report her fears for the baby.

"But it didn't do us any good. That's what makes me the most angry: We did exactly what we were supposed to do, and they dropped the ball."

The death of Tramelle Sturgis in South Bend also raises questions about the quality of DCS assessments.

A caseworker investigated a report in May that Tramelle's father and grandmother were beating children in the home with a wooden club -- a very specific allegation. But the DCS investigator reported on June 20 that there was no evidence of abuse.

Five months later, Tramelle, 10, was dead. A police investigation revealed the boy "suffered from numerous injuries, both old and new," according to court documents.

The final, fatal beating, investigators allege, was administered by his father. Tramelle was beaten to death with a wooden club.


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