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The Indiana Lawyer on 12/06/2019 by Marilyn Odenhahl
Despite the attention the Statehouse has given to the Indiana Department of Child Services in the past two years – hiring outside consultants to review the agency and passing numerous laws regarding policies and practices within the department – an arrest of a former caseworker on neglect charges is bringing another call for more changes.
Spencer Osborn of Anderson was indicted by a Madison County grand jury Dec. 2 for allegedly neglecting a child who was under his supervision as a DCS caseworker. Osborn was charged with three counts of neglect of a dependent resulting in serious bodily injury, Level 3 felonies, and one count of neglect of a dependent resulting in bodily injury as a Level 5 felony.
Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings said he convened the grand jury because of the number of children who are still being harmed by their family members even though they are in the care of DCS. In 2018, the county recorded the deaths of five such children who were all under the age of 2.
“I think as a community we’re growing very weary of dead babies who were supervised by DCS,” Cummings said.
Osborn entered a not guilty plea at his initial hearing in Madison Circuit Court on Dec. 5 and has posted a $20,000 bond. The court scheduled a pretrial conference for Jan. 2, 2020.
In a statement, Osborn’s attorney Philip Sheward, partner at Allen Wellman McNew LLP in Fort Wayne, said Osborn was being used to push a legislative agenda.
“This criminal case appears to be part of a dispute between Madison County DCS and the Madison County Prosecutor’s Office. DCS caseworkers like Mr. Osborn have been caught in the middle,” Sheward said. “The Madison County Prosecutor’s Office is trying to legislate changes to Indiana’s child welfare laws through the prosecution of a criminal case. They hope that by prosecuting Mr. Osborn, our legislators feel forced to change our laws. Criminal prosecutions should not be a lobbying tactic.”
Cummings acknowledged he had been talking to legislators and is planning to travel to the Statehouse when the Indiana General Assembly convenes in 2020. Also, he said he has spoken several times with DCS director Terry Stigdon, and while he credited her for doing her best to make changes, he thinks the bureaucracy is too large and has been too slow to take a different approach.
In particular, the prosecutor criticized what he sees as the department’s push to reunify families even when that puts a child’s safety at risk. He detailed cases from Madison County of DCS workers not visiting the homes of families or checking on the children. As a result, he said, the youngsters are dying, including two who were murdered by their parents and one 4-month-old who died of a heroin overdose.
“Yes, it’s wonderful,” Cummings said of reunification, “but sometimes it puts the victims back in the hands of the people mistreating them.”
Stigdon released a statement after the arrest, saying DCS consults with partners across the child welfare system when making decisions about families and children. DCS family case managers, supervisors and county office leaders work regularly with community members, including judges, prosecutors, CASA volunteers, foster parents and attorneys, in determining how to keep children safe from abuse or neglect.
“These decisions are not made hastily nor in a silo,” Stigdon said. “Children’s lives are at stake and their safety and well-being are of the utmost importance.”
Sheward echoed Stigdon, indicating his client did not act alone.
“Mr. Osborn does not understand why he is being singled out and charged criminally for returning a child to his biological mother as part of a child in need of services case,” Sheward said. “These decisions are not made by a single caseworker, but in collaboration with their supervisors and child advocates, then ultimately approved by the court.”
Cummings maintains the only solution will come from the Legislature requiring DCS to put the safety of the children over the reunification of the family. The well-being of the child has to be paramount, he said.
However, Sheward and his client warned the arrest could have unexpected consequences.
“Filing criminal charges against DCS caseworkers based upon abuse perpetrated by parents on their overloaded caseload will lead to at least two terrible outcomes,” Sheward said. “First, DCS caseworkers will and should be terrified to ever recommend returning a child to a parent. More children will languish in the foster care system because of this fear. Second, there will be a mass exodus of DCS caseworkers, making the institutional problems worse. DCS caseworkers are already underpaid, overworked, and have near-impossibly high caseloads. Apparently, all DCS caseworkers are on notice that if they do not perform their job perfectly, prosecutors now wish to put them in prison.”