Indiana Department of Child Services claims merit investigation

South Bend Tribune

One year ago, in announcing his reappointment of former juvenile court judge Mary Beth Bonaventura as director of the Indiana Department of Child Services, then Gov.-elect Eric Holcomb noted that her “relentless passion for child advocacy will serve Hoosier families and children well for years to come.”

Bonaventura, first appointed to the position in 2013 by Gov. Mike Pence, said she was “walking on cloud nine” after her reappointment.

To say that things have changed since then is beyond an understatement: Earlier this month, Bonaventura submitted her resignation.

And in a strongly worded letter dated Dec. 12, she says that cuts to DCS’ funding and services are putting children at risk in the midst of the state’s opioid crisis.

Bonaventura outlined the reasons she believes the state is threatening children’s lives. They include Holcomb stripping her of the power to run the agency, instead empowering one of his aides — “with no child welfare experience.” She also blamed “antiquated technology” that affects prosecutors and every parent who receives or pays child support.

She warns in her letter that “without serious change in the way the Governor’s office approaches child welfare and the needs of vulnerable children, I fear lives will be lost and families ruined.”

Holcomb has disputed the allegations, saying that the state is providing “record funding” to DCS.

An The Associated Press report said state financial figures show a $600 million increase in funding to the agency over the past several years. However, those figures do not reflect money made available for specific programs or priorities within the agency.

Since Bonaventura submitted her resignation, several people in the state’s child welfare system have spoken out, telling The Indianapolis Star that Indiana is in the middle of a crisis. Among the troubling assertions is that officials are being swamped by a 65 percent increase in the number of court cases that allege a child has suffered abuse or neglect since 2010.

Marion Juvenile Court Judge Marilyn Moores, who says the system is “drowning, literally drowning,” put it in stark terms: “I have grave concern. Because those cuts — when (Bonaventura) says a child’s life may absolutely hang in the balance, she’s right.”

Even without support from Moores and other child welfare advocates, Bonaventura’s words carry tremendous weight. Her credibility and commitment to the well-being of kids are unquestioned — they led Pence to turn to her to restore public confidence in an agency decimated by the budget ax. Her resignation letter raises red flags about cuts that value cost savings over protecting children.

Holcomb has yet to directly and fully respond to the claims that Bonaventura made in her letter.

He has said that he shares her commitment to keeping children safe and that he believes the state is taking “appropriate steps.”

Given the serious charges leveled by Bonaventura — lauded by Holcomb’s predecessor for her “impeccable reputation of integrity and compassion for children” — the next step is clear.

An investigation of Bonaventura’s claims is in order and anyone who shares her commitment to keeping Hoosier kids safe should recognize the need for such action.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to [email protected].