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Politically Speaking

Department of Child Services Reform

January 28, 2019 (Updated: 9:33 AM)
Author Erika Celeste

About Erika

Photo of Erika

Erika Celeste got her first taste of politics as a toddler when her father took her to the People’s Barricade protest in 1972 near the Twin Cities where they lived.

Today she is an award-winning journalist with 25 years in the multi-media business. Among her accolades are several Telly’s, AP and SEJ awards, as well as an Edward R. Murrow Award. She earned her political stripes with West Virginia Public Broadcasting covering the West Virginia Statehouse for 6 years as the House Reporter. During that time, she joined and soon found herself writing and producing Third House, the annual media roast of the legislature. As the owner of a small freelance company she has written and ghostwritten more than 18 books including her most recent A Lion Has No Horns (a modern immigrant’s story). She frequently works for such entities as Voice of America, National Public Radio, and Happs.TV.

In 2016, her passion for politics collided with her love of foster partenting when she initiated and successfully lobbied the Indiana Legislature for HB 1069.The law now makes it a felony to stalk foster parents.

Ninety-nine Children Dead…If you saw that headline, you’d want to know what happened, right? In 2017, 70children in Indiana did die from neglect and abuse, while 29 died in Michigan under similar circumstance. If that doesn’t seem as heartbreaking as the original headline, think about it for a minute. That’s more than the number of people killed in the recent Jolo Cathedral twin bombings in the Philippians, more than the number who died in California’s Camp Fire wildfire, and more than the number of students killed in the Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting. Untimely death is a tragedy, but the deaths of Indiana and Michigan’s kids is mind-numbingly heart-stopping and gut-wrenching. Why? Because most of these children aren’t just hurt or neglected once. It goes on and on and on for them. They often live in pain, hunger, and cold, often their entire lives without knowing anything different or better. They’re too young (most under the age of 3) to understand, let alone voice their fears or warn of danger before their lives are snuffed out.Several bills going through both states’ general assemblies beginning with additional funding may begin to change the above statistics. Indiana SB 170 will require greater reporting on child fatalities for the children who didn’t get help.

How do I know? Because I have been a foster parent since 2012. I have heard the horror stories firsthand from little people who wake screaming in the night and witnessed mind games both unwittingly and deliberately played by their biological families. I have seen children torn apart and crushed by neglect and abuse. And I have been stalked in the course of being a foster parent. You don’t know what fear is until you’ve had someone follow you, whom you can’t see threatening to shoot you in the head and kidnap the child in your care. When it happened to me, I didn’t believe it at first. That only happens in the movies, right? But as the texts rolled in describing the stops I made, who was in the car with me, and what was worn, I became terrified. As a foster, I quickly learned that I was only a contract worker and therefore not entitled to representation by Department of Child Services or basically any help period. In sharing my story, I learned that I was not alone. Many foster parents experience varying degrees of stalking usually from family members of the children placed in their care. I’m not the kind of person who sits by and hopes the world will change. I had to do my part to make sure what happened to me, wouldn’t happen to any other foster parent. Or at least if it did, that they wouldn’t be left to fend for themselves. In 2016, I successfully lobbied for a law in Indiana that makes it a felony to stalk foster parents in the line of duty.

When I lobbied, our legislators listened respectfully, but I don’t think they or too many others for that matter had any idea how much bigger child services issues where about to get. That’s why I’m so glad to see that both Indiana and Michigan are making child protective services reform a part of their 2019 agendas.

Before I go any further, there’s one important fact I that may help explain some of the disparity between Indiana and Michigan’s systems. Indiana has 92 counties in Indiana—all with their own local DCS offices. Yet, Indiana does NOThave a uniform across the board policy for how the offices operate. That’s right each of the 92 offices (which are all part of the same department) basically define their own set of operational rules. That can affect everything from what biological parents must do to get their children back, to how foster children are cared for while in the system, to what foster parents and even case managers can and can’t do. It becomes easy to see why there’s so much confusion.

There are some very good people working for both agencies, that are really trying to help our kids, but their hands are tied. They simply don’t have the resources to accomplish the insurmountable tasks they are given. Yes, they are short-staffed and need more case workers, so that they can adequately help the kids on their caseloads. Do you know that most caseworkers only see the kids on their loads an average of once a month for less than an hour? Who do you think gets to know the kids in care best? The foster families! Yet, there isn’t a uniform way across the state for foster parents to report their concerns to judges. SB 251and SB 534 could help those situations if they become law.

Did you also know that most foster kids under 13 (an many over) never get to talk to a judge in regard to their situation, what happened, or where they’d like to live? Or that currently if a child re-enters the system their last foster family is not necessarily given notice or offered the chance to take the child back in? Or that kids who age out often don’t get many of the tools they need to be successful adults and often end up in jail at much higher rates than their non-foster counterparts? Several bills on the books aim to change those things. There are also bills to help case managers with college loan debt, benefit child advocates, medicating foster children, and immediately terminating parental rights on drug-addicted babies.

Of course, not all bills pass on their first time through the legislature. But, the good news is the plight of our most vulnerable citizens is finally being recognized by our lawmakers and it won’t go away, until it is fixed. Find out more about Indiana and Michigan’s foster systems next time on Politically Speaking.