The Indiana Department of Child Services handles cases appropriately most of the time, but "there's always room for change," said a leader charged with being the agency's watchdog.
In the first-one-on-one broadcast interview since the Legislature created the Ombudsman Bureau in 2009 to provide more oversight of DCS, Ombudsman Alfreda Singleton-Smith discussed the state of DCS and child welfare in Indiana with Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney.
"There's always room for change, because people are always changing," said Singleton-Smith, who took over for Susan Hoppe after Hoppe's retirement in April 2013.
Ombudsman Plays Watchdog Role
The mission of DCS is to protect children and families and investigate instances of abuse and neglect.
The role of the DCS ombudsman, along with two assistants, is to serve as a watchdog, ensuring DCS is doing its job.
"Our goal is to ensure that policies and processes are followed," said Singleton-Smith. "When you have a large entity like DCS, there are opportunities for misunderstanding."
The Call 6 Investigators have been digging deeper into DCS in a series of stories that included an interview with DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura.
In that interview, Bonaventura said her biggest fear is that another child will have to suffer like Devin Parsons, 12, who was beaten to death by his mom and her boyfriend despite numerous warnings to DCS.
DCS has faced sharp criticism over child deaths in recent years.
Between 2007 and 2012, the deaths of 219 Hoosier children were attributed to abuse and neglect. Fifty of those had a prior history with DCS.
The DCS ombudsman is in place so that people dealing with DCS have a place to go to file a complaint and request an independent review.
Singleton-Smith works in the Indiana Department of Administration, separate from DCS.
"(It’s a misconception) that we are a part of child services, that we make the decisions," said Singleton-Smith.
The Ombudsman Bureau is handling a growing number of complaints.
According to the annual report, 210 cases were opened in 2013, 210 were closed and 267 were active during the course of the year.
The complaints come from parents, grandparents, neighbors and child advocates. Singleton-Smith said the voices on the other end can get downright emotional.
"Anything that has to do with children and families, people are going to be passionate," said Singleton-Smith.
Singleton-Smith’s passion is social work, and she said it's her calling to positively affect the lives of children.
Gov. Mike Pence appointed Singleton-Smith ombudsman a year ago while she was working for The Villages, a nonprofit specializing in foster care, adoption and family services.
She said the most common complaint she hears about DCS is regarding child abuse and neglect assessments, followed closely by complaints about where children are placed.
"It can become very conflictual when you're working with the public,” said Singleton-Smith, when asked about scrutinizing such a controversial agency. "We try to ensure there's been some communication between the individual and DCS. Many times people are upset or frustrated because of something they’ve perceived has happened, but they have not talked with their family case manager or their supervisor.”
The office handles dozens of phone calls and emails a day, with some phone calls taking more than an hour.
They usually see an uptick in complaints following a media report, like Kenney’s exclusive interview with Bonaventura.
"Staffing is always an issue, and most times we don't have enough," said Singleton-Smith. "There's things we could do differently if we had more staff."
The bureau has a budget of about $215,000, which includes personnel, supportive services and supplies.
The Call 6 Investigators learned the ombudsman can investigate, review cases and issue recommendations to DCS, but cannot intervene or participate in neglect and abuse cases.
DCS can choose to follow recommendations from the ombudsman or not follow them, but they must respond within 60 days.
"Ninety-five percent of the time, DCS does respond in a positive manner,” said Singleton-Smith, adding that she is objective in examining the agency's decisions.
According to the 2013 annual report, the Ombudsman Bureau found 83 percent of cases/complaints it handled did not have merit, leaving 17 percent of cases with an allegation against DCS that was determined to have merit.
"For the great majority of the cases we review, we find DCS made the decision in the best interest of the child," said Singleton-Smith. "Is there room for change? There’s always room for change."
The annual report showed the Ombudsman Bureau investigated a complaint in which there were allegations that a conflict of interest regarding a DCS employee put a child at risk.
The ombudsman issued a recommendation that the local office address the role of bias in the decision-making process.
The report said family case manager supervisors discussed the issue at their next staff meeting with their employees.
The Ombudsman Bureau has been critical of DCS’ turnaround time on fatality and near-fatality assessments, saying the agency needs to address the backlog.
According to the ombudsman annual report, DCS has appointed a committee to look at the issue.
The office prides itself on getting back to citizens within a day or less.
If you have a complaint regarding the Department of Child Services, you can file one here.