By Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane (D-Anderson)
Word Count: 403
No action taken by state government better reflects its priorities than the state budget. While the legislature is tasked with hammering out the details, Governor Pence and his staff have wide latitude in shaping the fiscal direction of the state.
Further, while Hoosiers appreciate the need for an adequate budget surplus, they also insist that doing so does not in any way risk the protection of vulnerable children. In other words, protecting children outweighs protecting an oversized budget surplus.
That’s why testimony at a recent Budget Committee hearing is so concerning. The Department of Child Services (DCS) stated that the number of Children In Need of Services has substantially increased over the past few years and admitted they failed to comply with state law establishing maximum caseloads standards for their workers in 18 of the agency’s 19 regions.
The agency acknowledged it would take only 77 additional family case managers (FCMs) to meet the standards, a relatively small ask considering the agency already employs over 1,500 FCMs. Yet no request was made for additional staff.
This is not new. Since the state took over the local child welfare levies as part of property tax reform in 2008, funding for services and the daily care and treatment of abused, neglected and delinquent children has decreased by $280 million. Over the same time period, DCS reversions to the state’s General Fund totaled more than $230 million.
These facts paint a sobering picture. Even an agency as critical as the Department of Child Services is not immune from Tea Party Republicans’ and the governor’s philosophy of cutting government at all costs. But common sense Hoosiers have never taken this approach to government’s key duty to protect children.
In fact, these are lessons we have learned before. High-profile failures by DCS prompted legislative action in 2012 because Hoosiers demanded it. But the governor chooses now to ignore the clearly-stated caseworker/children ratios codified by the legislature, offering only as an excuse some vague belief the standards need to be reevaluated. This certainly does not justify failing to uphold standards widely recognized as best practices.
Governor Pence can still do the right thing. The budget he lays out in January can properly fund the services needed to help children and their families. That simple action would send a strong signal that we can build a sufficient surplus while upholding core functions of state government, like protecting our most vulnerable.