SOUTH BEND – A local judge says some kids could be saved if the Department of Child Services had more people with more experience at the local level. He’s also very critical of a new plan a study committee is proposing to overhaul the DCS call center in Indianapolis.
St. Joseph Probate Judge Peter Nemeth told WSBT that so-called “overhaul” is not enough to help local children. He’s worried children in St. Joseph County who need help won’t get it. Nemeth also says it’s now more of a “wait and see” situation to see if any changes will happen.
“It’s an experiment,” Nemeth said.
He doesn’t think it’s fair to “experiment” on our kids with big time DCS funding cuts and dramatic staffing changes.
“I think we really need to examine how effective this has been for providing services for children. I don't see any statistics telling me that children are being better taken care of. If anything, we're seeing the opposite – children being killed, dying at the hands of abusers,” he added.
One of those children was 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis. His father, Terry Sturgis, beat, burned and tortured Tramelle to death last November inside the basement where the family was living on West Washington Street in South Bend.
Many people questioned the way DCS handled at least two reports of suspected abuse being inflicted on Tramelle and his brothers that came into the Indianapolis call center, a hotline that used to be managed at the local level.
There was also hefty criticism of the caseworker who visited the Sturgis home and the boys’ schools to follow up on the reported abuse.
“How can somebody in a room in Indianapolis know what’s going on in Fort Wayne or South Bend or Evansville? They're not going to know the names of families. They're not going to know the experience. And you lose that personal touch. I don't think there's any comparison,” Nemeth said.
A 20-member DCS Interim Study Committee is asking lawmakers to add 60 new workers at the call center. All reports would then be assessed by 80 new local family case managers and 16 new supervisors.
But Nemeth worries it’s still not enough to keep cases from slipping through the cracks.
“I think certainly from my viewpoint, we could do a much better job running that system than they’re doing,” he added.
The proposed DCS overhaul isn’t just about the hotline. The study committee is also asking Indiana lawmakers to create a permanent, 11-member DCS oversight committee that would meet at least four times a year along with another 15-member committee to talk about school delinquency, juvenile arrest rates, child abuse and domestic abuse.
The proposals will be presented to Indiana’s House and Senate in bipartisan bills in January, but even if the legislature approves them, it will take time before we see any of the changes. The new DCS director says hiring and training staff and implementing the program could take up to nine months beyond the timeframe it could take lawmakers to pass the measure.