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Report: Parent drug use factor in many child welfare cases

(Photo Supplied / Holcomb for Governor)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A review of Indiana’s troubled child welfare agency confirms what advocates have long said: Parental drug abuse has led to a surge in children removed from their homes.

Exacerbated by the opioid epidemic, parental drug abuse was a factor in the removal of 7,015 children from their homes in 2017. That accounts for 55 percent of all removals that year — up from just 28 percent in 2013.

But while the Department of Child Services spent more than $24.9 million on drug testing, only $4.5 million was spent on treatment, the report found. Meanwhile, other state efforts aimed at connecting addicts with treatment are just starting.

That’s often left addict parents to fend for themselves in a state where getting tough on crime is a common, if not prevalent, approach toward law enforcement. At the same time, DCS has taken an “aggressive” approach toward marijuana use, even when there’s no indication it has impacted a “parent’s caregiver ability,” the report states.

All this underscores major challenges faced by DCS, a beleaguered agency that has struggled to manage a massive surge in child welfare cases. While such cases have skyrocketed across the U.S., the problem is particularly acute in a handful of states, including Indiana.

The 116-page review was prepared by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Ground, a consultant hired by Gov. Eric Holcomb after his outgoing DCS chief accused his administration of management changes and service cuts that “all but ensure children will die.”

The assessment delivers a stinging indictment of an agency dominated by a “culture of fear” where concern over “personal liability” is placed above the “long-term well-being of children.” But it also makes clear dysfunction is not limited to the agency.

It details “families being ‘screamed at’ by judges” advocating for “forced sobriety,” police suggesting “a weekend in jail” will cure addict parents, and a prevalent belief that any parent who uses any type of substance is a “bad person.”

“There’s nothing to help people who want to be sober and jail isn’t helping,” said one person identified in the report as a “representative of the judiciary.”

Another, identified as a DCS supervisor, lamented a lack of access to in-patient treatment, suggesting that going through drug withdrawal in out-patient treatment was a “built-in deterrent to sobriety.”

One now-sober parent who was jailed in 2015 for drug use described the difficulties of arranging a ride to drug screening after being released.

“DCS gave me expectations but no service to support me,” the parent said.

In recent years, five similar DCS reviews have been conducted, only to have the findings shelved. On Monday, Holcomb pledged to take action, stating: “This is on my watch. And what’s different is we’re going to act on these recommendations.”

One suggestion the report hints at is easing up on parents who test positive for marijuana, which is legal to use recreationally in some states, though not Indiana.

“Many point particularly to what they see as an aggressive approach in the case of parental marijuana use and wonder if it is warranted especially since the same level of rigor does not seem to be applied in instances of parental alcohol abuse,” the report states.

Such a move could free up DCS workers to focus on more severe cases.

Holcomb spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson would not say on Friday what specific recommendations the governor plans to act on, though she allowed that changes to DCS’ marijuana policy “may be one consideration.”

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