By Tami Silverman, President & CEO, Indiana Youth Institute
April is Child Abuse Awareness Month, and 2019 is the year Indiana must take significant additional steps to protect our youngest and most vulnerable residents. Indiana has the third highest rate in the country of substantiated child abuse and neglect cases per 1,000 children. That’s far too many Hoosier kids.
Last summer, the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group (CWG) conducted a six-month assessment of DCS, publishing their findings along with 20 specific recommendations. The recommendations range from improving treatment and support for families struggling with substance use disorder, to enhanced coordination among state agencies, to transforming the culture at DCS to encourage better staff decision making and responsiveness. Since the report was released, local and state leaders have pressed for action and additional ways to keep our kids safe. A number of responsive bills have since been proposed in the Indiana General Assembly, and the Governor’s budget includes increased funds to address the Department of Child Service’s (DCS) high caseloads, low salaries and turnover rates. We need to build upon these proposals.
A child may be declared by an Indiana court to be a Child in Need of Services (CHINS) if they are seriously impaired or endangered by abuse or neglect, and the child’s parents are unable or unwilling to correct the problem on their own. In 2017, 29,630 Hoosier children were designated as Children in Need of Services (CHINS), more than twice the number of kids so designated just three years earlier. Scott county has the highest rate of CHINS, followed by Perry and Spencer counties, while Hamilton, Hendricks and Washington counties have the state’s lowest rates. These children often face court hearings, new foster homes, and school transitions. In such cases, a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) or guardian ad litem (GAL) volunteer plays a critical role, ensuring that our most vulnerable children have with them a supportive adult to speak up for their best interests. Indiana has certified CASA/GAL programs in over 80 of our 92 counties. Yet nearly 6,000 children are waiting for a CASA/GAL volunteer.
Interestingly, new research shows that one of our state’s on-going efforts to increase child well-being, increasing access to high quality pre-K, can also help reduce child abuse and neglect. The Child Trends study examined records from children in Early Head Start programs in 14 states. While they were not expecting to find this result, the researchers discovered that participating three-year-olds experienced less family conflict and parenting stress, more supportive parenting and home environments, and better child cognitive and self-regulation skills. These positive factors made the preschoolers 10- 22% less likely to become involved with the child welfare system before age 16. It is understandable, and encouraging, that by engaging parents and helping families develop supportive habits, high quality pre-K programs can also reduce child abuse and neglect rates.
In addition to encouraging the passage of promising new legislation, and supporting increased funding and impactful community programs, we must remember that protecting our children is a responsibility we all shoulder. Every Indiana adult is a mandatory reporter of suspected child abuse and neglect. The Indiana Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline, 1-800-800-5556, is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Reports can be made anonymously.
In the words of the late President Kennedy, “Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.” Throughout April, communities across the state will be holding prevention and awareness events. To find out what’s going on in your community go to the Prevent Child Abuse Indiana’s website at https://pcain.org/. This month, and every month, we must do more to provide the basic need of safety to all Hoosier children.
(Tami Silverman is the President & CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI. IYI’s mission is to improve the lives of all Indiana children by strengthening and connecting the people, organizations, and communities that are focused on kids and youth.)