The School of Public and Environmental Affairs, in collaboration with a host of local groups and agencies, hosted its 19th Annual Forum on Child Abuse and Neglect on Friday, April 3, for an overflow crowd of social workers, foster parents, child advocates, and others with an interest in child-safety and protection issues.
More than 350 people attended the day-long event, which included presentations by guest speakers in Savannah Auditorium and breakout sessions on assorted topics of interest to child-welfare advocates. It was the program’s highest attendance ever, and the morning session was simulcast to an overflow crowd in Hawthorn Hall Room 107.
Special guests for this year’s forum included David Judkins, deputy director for field operations at the Indiana Department of Child Services, and Dr. Roberta Hibbard, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the IU School of Medicine and director of Child Protection Programs at Riley Hospital. A number of local public officials also participated, including Region I DCS Manager Jane Bisbee, Lake County Juvenile Court Senior Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura, and Lake County Magistrate Jeffrey Miller, among others.
Hibbard, who is a nationally recognized expert on child-abuse issues, delivered the afternoon plenary remarks, in which she discussed the relationship between negative childhood experiences and adult health concerns. She referred to the landmark ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study conducted by researchers Vince Felitti, Robert Anda and others, that revealed substantial correlation between childhood experiences and health risk factors later in life. The study assessed 18,000 participants on factors ranging from child abuse to domestic issues like divorce, family mental illness, and others.
“Adverse childhood experiences were very common, and they were very strong predictors of later health risks and later disease,” Hibbard explained. “This combination makes ACES the leading determinant of the health and social well-being of our nation. This has been the most compelling data to date that really supports those issues.”
The more ACES a person reported from his or her childhood, Hibbard explained, the more likely that person was to report significant health risks like smoking, obesity, adult alcoholism, chronic depression, or suicidal tendencies. Based on this evidence, Hibbard argued, the prevention of child abuse and neglect becomes not just a social-welfare issue but also a medical and healthcare concern
“This is a huge challenge, because how many doctors and how many medical providers want to be involved in child-abuse issues? Not very many,” Hibbard said. “And it’s a real struggle for us to get them to the table. But I think it’s critical that we do that, because as we talk about prevention, and as we talk about identification and services for children and families, the medical community really has a lot to offer, whether they recognize it or not.”
One of the breakout sessions this year featured a presentation by an IU Northwest faculty member, Assistant Professor of Social Work Denise Travis, Ph.D., and one of her Master of Social Work students, Hammond resident Bobbie Jo Hayes, who has experienced firsthand the foster-care system. Travis and Hayes spoke to their group about the reactions of abused or neglected children to their home situations and to their foster-care families.
Hayes said that, after some initial resentment and stand-offish behavior, she developed a powerful attachment to her long-term foster family, where she was placed after four years of temporary placements following her removal from what the state deemed to be an abusive home situation. Not all foster children come around to that kind of acceptance, Hayes said.
“Some kids have it the complete opposite way,” she explained. “They don’t want you to come near them. They don’t want anything to do with you. ‘Don’t touch me, don’t love me, don’t anything.’ I was that way at first, until they broke me, and then I went the opposite way.
“My poor parents, I feel so bad for them,” Hayes continued. “I could not spend the night at people’s houses. My mom would call me every half hour to make sure I was OK. Because I would need to know that she was still at that house calling me. Because I was afraid she wasn’t going to be there. I would have nightmares that the house would catch on fire and they were in it. I will still, to this day, if I call her cell phone and she doesn’t answer, or if she doesn’t answer at the house, I’ll call my grandpa, I’ll call my aunt, I will call until I find her, because I need to know that she’s there. I need to know that they’re both there.”
Travis said it’s not the social worker’s place to judge a parent’s love for their child, and she explained that love, although important, is not the central issue.
“Never, ever, have I questioned their love. My question is, are they able to parent?” Travis said. “I’m not going to question whether or not they love their child. That’s not my place. The question is, are you able to provide a safe environment for this child?”
Another breakout session focused on recent changes to the state’s adoption funding formula, which will mean less state aid for foster parents who decide to adopt the children in their care. In particular, forum participants expressed concern about lowered payments for parents who adopt foster children with special needs.
DCS Deputy Director Judkins explained that the Indiana General Assembly changed the funding method for child-welfare functions, eliminating the cost from property tax rolls and assigning it to the state’s central DCS operation. This has resulted in a number of changes to the DCS funding infrastructure, he said, many of which are still being worked out. But the need for DCS to adhere to a centralized annual budget led to reductions in adoption subsidies, he said. About half of Indiana’s adopted children do not now qualify for subsidies, according to Judkins, while others may receive lower subsidies than under the previous arrangement.
Judge Bonaventura, during a panel discussion on the funding issue, declared herself a staunch proponent of adoption funding for parents who accept the responsibility of caring permanently for foster children who face special physical, mental or emotional challenges.
“I think it’s a crime that we place children with these families, and we prepare them to be with this new family, and we prepare foster parents to take a stranger into their home and love them like their own, but when this dance is over and we’re getting ready for everybody to go home … we’re saying to these people, ‘Well, we’ve supported you all along with this amount of money, but guess what? Now you’re on your own,’” Bonaventura said.
“I think, to some degree, foster parents do need to step up,” the judge added. “If this was your own child, you wouldn’t be getting subsidies from the government. I understand that. Do I think every child should get a subsidy? Absolutely not. There are kids that are healthy and normal. But we have a whole bunch of kids who aren’t healthy and normal and who need assistance financially. Otherwise, families aren’t going to adopt. I am going to take that on to try and get that changed, and that’s a commitment I’ll make here.”
Lake County’s DCS office received its share of kudos during the forum, as Judkins commended the local agency for its recent performance numbers. Judkins explained that, last July, DCS faced a statewide backlog of overdue investigations totaling more than 3,300, out of more than 100,000 reports received in a typical year. That number has since been reduced to 147 statewide, but Judkins noted that Lake County has reduced the number of its overdue investigations to just three.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of this Lake County staff,” the deputy director said. “This Lake staff and this operation up here has become the hallmark operation of the state. We have people asking to transfer into Lake County.”
Overall, Judkins said Indiana measured up very well against other states in a recent federal assessment of child-welfare programs, which was based on evaluations of a variety of specific outcomes.
“Indiana did terrific,” he said. “We ended up being third, fifth, ninth, 10th, and 11th, which is just way, way past where we’ve ever been before. We’re really proud of that. The feds usually don’t call, but they did call to tell us how impressed they were with the progress.”
Despite the praise, Region I DCS Manager Bisbee did not hesitate to insist that her office can, and must, do even better in several areas.
“We can do better,” Bisbee said. “Right now, in our region, the children have an average of 2.8 moves (per case). So, just under three moves per child. Three moves is not a lot, I guess, but when you’re a child, it seems like a lot. You’re in three different places. Somebody says to you, ‘You’re not here, anymore; you need to go somewhere else.’ The state average is just under three also, so we’re right at the state average. I might add, it’s over the federal tolerance. The standard is not three, I believe it’s two. So we can do better.”
Bisbee also noted that average length of care for Lake County is much higher than the state average.
“Right now, the average length of care for our region is 829 days,” she said. “The state average is 617. Some of that does have to do with the very difficult children that are placed in our care. Sometimes, when children come to our attention, their needs are so great, and they have such a need for treatment, that it’s not something that can be treated easily (or) quickly. And we have a high number of children who are older.”
Bisbee sought to dispel the notion that, once foster children reach age 18, they’re automatically ready to face the world on their own. In that regard, they’re no different than many other teens – they still require the guidance that comes from a family network, she said.
“They’re particularly not ready if they have no one to go home to,” Bisbee said. “Sooner or later, we legally have to let the kids go into the world. But one of the things I always say is … ‘Where are they going to go on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter?’ If you can’t answer that, then we haven’t done our job.”