The stories she has heard in her first six weeks on the job bring tears to her eyes.
The 4-year-old caring for an infant sibling, the abuse, the children losing their innocence. Those cases weigh on Terry Stigdon, Indiana’s new Department of Child Services director.
“We’re talking about people here. They’re real lives,” she said.
“No one wants anything bad to happen to another human being, especially when you’re talking about children.”
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At the same time, those cases remind Stigdon why she left her nearly 20-year career in nursing at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health to take the job leading a state department that is facing significant challenges, especially in the wake of the opioids crisis.
“It keeps us grounded to stay in service to keep kids safe,” she said.
“It’s humbling to be in a position where I have the opportunity to help so many.”
Stigdon was named the leader of the state department of child services in December, after the former director resigned in a letter to the governor, criticizing cuts to the agency’s funding and services and saying those decisions are putting children at risk in the midst of the state’s opioid crisis.
Taking the job was not a decision Stigdon took lightly. Stigdon, whose faith is very important to her, prayed a lot and talked to a lot of the people around her, she said.
She loves helping others and loves working with children. But she knew this was a huge job.
A friend told her: “This will be the most challenging job you will ever love.”
And so far, that has been 100 percent true, Stigdon said.
Stigdon is leading a state office that has been significantly impacted by Indiana’s opioid crisis.
In Johnson County alone, the need for foster homes has significantly grown, along with communities across the state who are desperately recruiting families to help children in need. The number of local court cases opened for children in situations of abuse or neglect has also continued to grow, reaching 267 last year, up from 177 in 2015. And the state is investigating more claims of neglect locally, with substantiated cases reaching 289 in 2016, up from 170 in 2013, according to the Indiana Youth Institute.
It’s an issue she is still working to get the full grasp of, she said.
But she already has had plenty of experience with the impacts of the drug addiction epidemic from her time at Riley Hospital, where she would see children from neglectful and abusive situations and department of child services workers going into those homes to try to help the children and their families get the resources they need, she said.
Substance abuse was already a difficult challenge for families, along with other issues that lead the state to step in, such as abuse or other stressors. But opioids presents other challenges, including the stronger likelihood of relapse and the longer involvement by the state in those cases.
“You don’t want children to be in care for years and years,” she said.
Six weeks into her new role, Stigdon estimates she’s had about 100 meetings with everyone from judges and state lawmakers to case managers and foster parents. She’s drawn on her nursing background to go into assessment mode and is spending as much time as she can in local communities, learning about what her case managers and employees are dealing with everyday.
Those voices are important and those stories are crucial for her to hear, she said. Those have been some of her best teaching moments, she said.
“It’s difficult to forget how personal these issues are,” she said.
She’s had plenty of tough days, and she knows she will face tougher ones. But at the same time, she has also had great days, she said.
After meeting with case managers and her employees in the field, she feels energized instead of exhausted. Those are the people who give her hope. She hears the passion they have to help people.
“We have the right people to do this,” she said.
“It’s hard not to feel hopeful when you have so many who want to help. We can really make a difference for these families.”
Stigdon sees her role as being the person who clears hurdles and problems her staff is facing in getting their job done. She wants to connect the workers out in the communities with the resources in the central office, she said.
“What can I do to help get the stuff out of your way to help you do what you need to do,” she said.
She knows of some struggles already, including a lack of resources in some areas — especially rural areas — to help the families that are struggling.
She knows that the state agency as a whole needs to communicate better, especially with the foster families that are so desperately needed right now.
And she knows that her agency needs to not work in silo, especially since they are often working with the same people. Working together will only help, including by providing more resources to families in need, she said.
Her top concern is to make sure case managers and supervisors have what they need to do their jobs, she said.
That’s why she has prioritized spending time with them in the field, learning about their responsibilities and what it feels like to walk into a call for a struggling family. She wants to be sure they have the tools and resources they need to do their jobs and she wants them to feel supported, but she needs to sort out what that really looks like, she said.
The big question is what comes next and what changes Stigdon will make, such as whether more case manager positions will be added, and she isn’t ready to answer that question yet, she said.
One big factor she is waiting on is the report expected this summer from the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, a contractor hired to assess the state department and then make recommendations on changes. That group recently finished its second progress report and a final report is expected in June.