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Indiana child welfare chief blames governor for resignation

December 18, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The head of Indiana’s child welfare agency told the governor in a scathing letter that she is quitting because his administration cut services and made changes to her agency that has made it impossible to adequately protect the state’s most vulnerable kids.

Mary Beth Bonaventura, who’s stepping down Dec. 27 after five years as director of the Indiana Department of Child Services, warned in last week’s resignation letter to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb that a continuation of his administration’s policies will “all but ensure children will die.”

The letter, first reported Monday by the Indianapolis Star, was independently obtained by The Associated Press.

“I choose to resign, rather than be complicit in decreasing the safety, permanency and well-being of children who have nowhere else to turn,” Bonaventura wrote. “I feel I am unable to protect children because of the position taken by your staff to cut funding and services to children in the midst of the opioid crisis.”

Holcomb, for his part, disputed the allegations.

“There was a need for more funding. And that’s why we moved almost half a billion dollars into that one agency, to make sure we were doing the best job possible to care for the kids of Indiana,” he told reporters Monday afternoon.

Indeed, state financial figures show a roughly $600 million increase in funding has been made to the agency over the past several years. But those figures indicate an overall level of funding. They do not reflect money made available for specific programs or priorities within the agency.

Bonaventura, who could not be reached for comment Monday, states in her letter that she was instructed to request a “fraction” of the funding the agency actually needed from budget writers in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, the opioid crisis has helped fuel a surge in the number of abused and neglected children in need of help. The number of cases has grown by 88 percent since 2012, increasing from 13,048 in 2012 to 23,950, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reported in October.

Bonaventura, a former Lake County juvenile court judge who has worked in child welfare for 36 years, was named DCS director in January 2013 by then-Gov. Mike Pence, who is now the vice president. She took over an agency roiled by news investigations into its handling of abuse and neglect cases after several children died in troubled homes that had been reported to the agency.

At the time, Pence said he picked her because of her “impeccable reputation of integrity and compassion for children.”

In her resignation letter, Bonaventura outlined four reasons she believes the state is threatening children’s lives.

First, she said Holcomb stripped her of the power to run the agency, empowering one of his deputies instead. That aide, Eric Miller, has used the position to make his own hires, bully subordinates, expose the agency to lawsuits, override her decisions and be “brazenly insubordinate” while making cost-cutting decisions without her knowledge, Bonaventura wrote.

Miller didn’t immediately reply to messages seeking comment that were left Monday at his and the governor’s offices.

Bonaventura wrote that the second way the state is threatening children’s lives is by jeopardizing the relationship she’s built with child welfare providers and the work DCS has been trying to do to update its rates and licensing.

The third reason is that DCS’ Child Support Bureau is “on the verge of collapse due to antiquated technology,” which she said would affect prosecutors and every parent who receives or pays child support. The office was poised to adopt a new system after nine years of planning, but the Holcomb administration pulled the plug.

Finally, Bonaventura warned that efforts by Holcomb’s office to reduce or cap staffing levels of family case managers and child welfare attorneys “will lead to disastrous results.” She said a plan to reduce contract amounts with providers by nearly $15 million will leave more than 1,000 families without appropriate court-ordered services.

Holcomb spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson acknowledged that the administration looks to cut costs.

“It’s our job to find the most efficient and effective ways to provide government service. If you pay too much for services, you can’t provide as many of them to those in need,” Wilson said in a statement.

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Follow Brian Slodysko on Twitter: https://twitter.com/BrianSlodysko

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

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