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Governor signs law requiring state to disclose more information about child abuse and neglect deaths

Rep. Ryan Lauer of Columbus authored the bill
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 4:58 PM, Mar 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-10 20:13:33-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Governor Eric Holcomb has signed into law a new effort to improve how the state shares information about child abuse and neglect deaths.

House Enrolled Act 1247, authored by Rep. Ryan Lauer, R-Columbus, will take effect July 1.

Signed into law on Thursday, the act will require the Indiana Department of Child Services to disclose more details when a child dies from abuse or neglect.

“We need to know more about these situations to make sure we are doing everything in our power to protect these young Hoosiers,” said Lauer on Thursday. “Our goal is to learn from these tragedies, intervene sooner, increase public awareness and draft better laws to protect these children.”

The state’s 2020 child fatality report revealed 50 children died from abuse and neglect that year, but some say the report does not provide enough detail to protect Hoosier children.

“I’m thankful for the unanimous support of the General Assembly and Governor Holcomb in protecting vulnerable children,” said Lauer.

HEA 1247 is inspired by Judah Morgan and the dozens of children who die in Indiana each year from abuse and neglect.

“I was very concerned about that case,” said Lauer. “Little Judah Morgan was on my mind when authoring the bill.”

Judah, 4, of LaPorte, died in October 2021 from blunt force trauma.

His biological father is charged with killing Judah.

“I was screaming for help and nobody was helping,” Jenna Hullett, Judah’s foster mom, said.

Jenna said she pleaded with the Indiana Department of Child Services not to allow Judah to return to his birth parents.

“We fell in love with him and he was pretty much ripped away from us,” Jenna said.

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.

But lawmakers say it doesn’t contain names of perpetrators, victims, locations, or enough detail to understand what went wrong.

“We want to know more about those situations,” Lauer said. “They’re very difficult to read, these reports, but necessary to understand some of the patterns.”

A history of substance use was identified as a factor for many of the caregivers accused of abuse or 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.

Lauer’s bill would require the state to also disclose if the perpetrator had a history of abusing or neglecting children.

“Our goal is to learn from these tragedies, to give these kids a voice when now they don't have a voice anymore,” Lauer said.

HEA 1247 will require the state to reveal whether the child was on a trial home visit, meaning DCS was visiting the family to make sure the child was safe.

Jenna said Judah was doing a trial home visit with his biological parents when he died.

“In my bill, I included trial home visits,” Lauer said. “That tragic case, for whatever reasons and circumstances I don’t understand, how that trial visit became a reality for Judah.”

The legislation will require DCS in its fatality report to include whether the death happened while the child was placed in residential care like a group foster home.

The state will 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 will 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.

Will Young, legislative director for the Indiana Department of Child Services, testified on Jan. 24 that DCS had some concerns about the bill’s language.

“There is reference to children in foster care, children that are wards of the department, as well as a child of CHINS, so there’s a general concern that we are sort of double counting,” Young said. “We want to make sure that the language is clear on what the department is supposed to provide. We don’t want to assume there are incidents in one bucket that aren’t in the other one. We want to make sure it’s clear what we are reporting and what the incident was.”

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