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Editorial: Return local voice in child abuse cases

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Watching out for abused children is best done close to home.

A plan announced recently by an Indiana General Assembly study committee recommends changes that would return more local control and input into the investigation of child abuse and neglect reports.

The Indiana Department of Child Services has been under intense scrutiny much of this year, with horror stories reported from all corners of the state and in between.

Study committee members reviewed the department and unanimously approved asking the state to draft emergency regulations that would give county field workers a much-needed voice in how abuse and neglect cases are handled. That would be much as cases used to be handled, before all calls were funneled to a central hotline.

The lawmakers also want to establish a permanent legislative committee that would oversee the state agency and recommend expanding and adding what they called child fatality review teams.

The committee’s vote followed months of sometimes heated hearings on the agency’s problems after media investigations into dozens of child deaths across the state. Children’s advocates and lawmakers alike pointed blame at the state’s centralized abuse reporting hotline in large part for “screening out” calls that should have been investigated by caseworkers and the police, according to reports by The Associated Press.

Officials from the Department of Child Services said the decision by the legislative committee would maintain a centralized reporting system but decentralize decisions on which calls are investigated. That’s where local offices would enter the picture.

While we remain wary about continuing the central reporting system, we applaud the effort to bring local child welfare officials into the decision-making process once reports are made.

The Associated Press reported that the state estimates the program would cost $9 million, much of it for hiring new caseworkers to work in local offices. The state has struggled to retain caseworkers, largely because the low salary offered by the state.

While that cost may conflict with Gov.-elect Mike Pence’s promise to place a moratorium on new regulations when he enters office next month, his campaign has pointed out that the proposed moratorium includes an exemption for “rules necessary to address emergency health or safety concerns,” according to The AP. Additional spending in this area clearly meets that exemption and should be authorized.

We support the effort to return a local voice to the decision-making process when child abuse and child neglect allegations are reported to the Indiana Department of Child Services. Local caseworkers often possess much more knowledge of what’s happening on the ground than a centralized panel in Indianapolis.

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