The new Commission on Improving the Status of Children in Indiana hasn't had its first official meeting, but its chair, Indiana Supreme Court Justice Loretta Rush, has already started prodding members to get to work.
In a recent informal meeting in her chambers, Rush urged other newly appointed commission members to embrace their ambitious challenge: Figuring out how to fix the state's fractured system of services for vulnerable children.
“It's rough out there for kids,” Rush said later, in talking about the commission's charge, “rougher than it's ever been.”
The new law that created the commission, effective July 1, came in response to revelations last year of problems at the state's Department of Child Services and the failings of its statewide child-abuse hotline. A summer study committee found that among other things, there were children in danger who were falling through bureaucratic cracks.
But the commission's mission goes far beyond oversight of the DCS. It's tasked with taking a deeper look at how well — or more accurately, how poorly — a myriad of agencies, organizations and entities are working together to help children in harm's way.
Rush had been pushing for such a commission for several years, based on concerns of judges like her who'd seen the need for better coordination of services for children who ended up in the court system.
She'd spent 14 years as a juvenile-court judge before she was tapped for the high court, and years before that as a court-appointed advocate for children who'd been abused, neglected or abandoned.
She'd seen how the tangle of services and programs aimed at helping children too often failed them, either from lack of coordination or by working at cross purposes.
Of the hundreds of memorable cases she's dealt with, she talks about one that embodies the problems the commission must face: It involves a teenage girl who grew up in the chaos of mental illness and poverty, and had been shuffled from foster home to foster home and in and out of different schools.
By the time the girl was in Rush's court, she was victim of repeated sexual abuse. “I remember her describing the abuse and her asking me, ‘Is this too hard for you to hear?’” Rush recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Too hard for me? This should be too hard for you.’”
Last year, at the invitation of the Indiana Judicial Conference, the National Center for State Courts took a look at how Indiana was serving the needs of the state's vulnerable children.
It found there are more than 30 Indiana-based entities, committees or groups that focus on various issues affecting children. It also found a lack of communication among key agencies that caused duplicated efforts and divisive turf battles and resulted in extra costs to taxpayers.
The commission that Rush will chair for the next year will take a closer look at that report during what she hopes will be candid and productive conversations.
She points to similar work done on a smaller scale in her home county of Tippecanoe. While on the bench, she launched a series of annual summits on juvenile justice issues, bringing together police and prosecutors with social service agencies, court officials, and community, school and church leaders. Among the issues they focused on: keeping children who were in the court system in their home schools, and finding alternatives to suspending or expelling children in trouble from school.
“We knew we had to keep kids in school,” Rush said. “We knew every time a kid was taken out of school or moved to a new school, they were going to suffer a setback.”
The commission intentionally includes members of all three branches of government, and includes the superintendent of public instruction, the attorney general, the head of Family and Children Services and four legislative leaders.
State Sen. Carlin Yoder, a Republican from Middlebury who supported the legislation that created the commission, said the law mandates that agency heads, not their representatives, sit on the commission.
“It's important that the decision-makers sit at that table and work together,” Yoder said. “Hopefully they'll put aside everything but their concerns about how to best protect the children of Indiana.”
By law, the commission will continue its work until at 2017; there's a provision that allows the commission to be extended beyond that.
“This isn't something that can get done in a year,” Yoder said. “This needs to be a long-term effort.”
–Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org