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Bill would require Indiana to disclose more information about child abuse and neglect deaths

Sen. J.D. Ford filed Senate Bill 64
Judah Morgan and his foster mother Jenna Hullett.  Judah died in October 2021 after suffering blunt force trauma.  His birth parents are charged in connection with Judah's death.
Posted at 10:25 AM, Jan 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-18 18:37:34-05

INDIANAPOLIS — A new effort is underway to change how Indiana reports child abuse and neglect deaths in our state.

State Senator J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, has filed legislation that would expand what the state’s Department of Child Services has to share with the public when a child dies from abuse or neglect.

The state’s 2020 child fatality report was just released and revealed 50 children died from abuse and neglect that year.

While the state currently shares some information about how the children died, Sen. Ford says it’s not enough.

Ford says the case of Judah Morgan, age 4, prompted him to file Senate Bill 64.

"The genesis of the bill was really because of the Judah story,” Ford said.

Judah Morgan died in October 2021 in LaPorte County, just months after being reunited with his birth parents.

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Judah’s foster mother Jenna Hullett says she pleaded with the Indiana Department of Child Services not to allow Judah to return to his birth parents.

“I was screaming for help and nobody was helping,” Hullett said. “We fell in love with him and he was pretty much ripped away from us. My adult kids looked at him like their baby brother.”

Judah was found unresponsive at his birth parents' home and suffering from blunt force trauma.

Both parents are now charged in connection with Judah’s death.

Judah is one of dozens of children in Indiana who die each year from abuse and neglect.

Judah died in 2021, but the 2021 state child fatality report won’t be released until the end of 2022.

The 2020 child fatality report shows 26% of the 50 victims of abuse and neglect had previously been identified by DCS as victims of abuse or neglect.

Ford wants to improve transparency with how the state reports deaths like Judah’s.

Senate Bill 64 would require DCS in their fatality report to include whether the death happened while the child was placed in residential care like a group foster home.

The state would also have to disclose whether the child had an open CHINS (Child In Need of Services) case, which is when a court gets involved.

The bill would also require DCS to include whether the child was under an in-home CHINS order at the time of the death, which means the child was still in their home and DCS was monitoring.

Under Ford’s legislation, DCS would also have to disclose whether the child was on a trial home visit which means DCS was visiting the family to make sure the child was safe.

Hullett says DCS told her they were checking on Judah in his birth parents’ home in the months leading up to his death.

"The better information that we can get, is going to better inform us as policy makers,” Ford said. “All of this information is information that we need. For example, what if three deaths occurred during an in home visit, well maybe we should take a step and look at that. This bill would allow that to happen so that way we have accurate data moving forward."

Kristi Cundiff, a former foster parent and current advocate for foster families, supports Senate Bill 64.

“There needs to be a better set of eyes,” Cundiff said. “There needs to be many sets of eyes on what's going on."

The state’s child fatality report currently includes brief summaries on how the deaths happened, including whether DCS had previously removed the victim from the home.

For example, the report says a 10-year old boy died in 2020 from blunt-force trauma and that the boy had previously been removed from the home by DCS and was living with his sister and his sister’s wife at the time of his death.

The child’s caregivers reported the child received his injuries in dirt bike accidents, but DCS found the sister and sister-in-law were responsible for the boy’s death.

Cundiff says the summaries need to include more information about DCS’ involvement prior to the child’s death.

“It's very disturbing to me that many of the cases are saying DCS was not involved,” Cundiff said. “I'm worried why DCS was not involved. That's very telling to me. If a child is being murdered and DCS isn't involved I want to know why."

Hullett also supports the bill.

It won’t bring Judah back, but she hopes requiring the state to share more information about abuse and neglect deaths will protect other children like Judah.

“If we have people that are going to be opening their eyes and making actions then I think things will hopefully start to get better,” Hullett said. “You can't fix a problem, unless you know where the problem is."

The bill has been assigned to the Family and Children Services Committee and has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

We reached out the Department of Child Services for their response to this bill, but a spokesperson declined to comment.