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Susan Hoppe, New Ombudsman: Can She Save Indiana’s Abused Children?

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Well, I hope this does some good.  I am hopeful, but not expecting much.  After all, Indiana recently received a failing grade for failing to protect abused children, one of eight states to earn that grade.  See the report:  New Report Released: Indiana Earns a Failing Grade When it Comes to the Rights of Abused Children.  From the Indianapolis Star:

New DCS ombudsman has no staff, little money

That’s what Indiana’s first DCS ombudsman will confront when she starts her new job this week

Posted: December 13, 2009

Indiana’s first child services ombudsman starts work Monday, and if the task of a lone person trying to keep watch over nearly 11,000 children and their families, 1,600 caseworkers and scores of private service providers isn’t daunting enough, consider this:

Questions already are swirling about whether Gov. Mitch Daniels’ appointee, Susan Hoppe, can be objective and independent.

Neither Daniels nor the legislature has spelled out a clear mandate for Hoppe, a 25-year veteran of the state’s child welfare system.

She will be expected to do the job with no staff and a budget that is a fraction of what is available to her counterparts in other comparable states — one of whom called it “a recipe for failure.”

On top of all that, Hoppe comes on board as the Department of Child Services faces increasing criticism from children’s advocates on two fronts: The agency is removing children from their families at a rate significantly above the national average, and at least 15 have died while either involved in active or recently closed DCS cases since September 2007.

“It certainly will be a daunting task,” said Cathleen Graham, executive director of IARCCA-An Association of Children & Family Services and a former head of the state’s child protection agency.

“Her charge includes both working on individual cases and reporting to the legislature on larger, systemic issues. That’s going to be a lot for one person to juggle.”

State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, sponsor of the original ombudsman bill that was significantly reworked before it won approval, sounds less than confident.

“Right now,” he said, “I’m at a loss. Is this going to be a successful venture or not?”

The answer to that question lies with Hoppe and how she approaches the job.

Hoppe was not available last week for an interview. But she did address her new post in two brief telephone conversations with The Indianapolis Star after her appointment last month.

“I have no agenda,” Hoppe said, “except to improve the system and certainly improve the public’s confidence in the Department of Child Services. I am going into this job quite open-minded. I plan to do a lot of listening, reviewing and observing.”

Does law lack teeth?

Indiana is joining about 30 other states that have some sort of ombudsman program that covers child services.

Gerald Papica, the Tennessee ombudsman and co-chairman of the Children and Families Chapter of the United States Ombudsman Association, said some programs focus on broad systemic issues and nearly all do at least some work involving complaint resolution.

In Washington state, the ombudsman mission statement says the role of the office “is to protect children and parents from harmful agency action or inaction, and to make agency officials and state policy makers aware of systemwide issues in the child protection and child welfare system so they can improve services.”

But when Indiana lawmakers created the ombudsman position during the special session in June, they did not provide a mission statement. The legislation lacks any specific mention of addressing complaints raised by families about the actions of DCS — which was a driving factor for many who pushed for an ombudsman position.

Instead, the Indiana law lists a broad range of issues the ombudsman could review, including complaints that DCS “failed to protect the physical or mental health or safety of any child or failed to follow specific laws, rules or written policies.”

Some backers say that is strong enough.

But others say the lack of a clear directive to address mistreatment of families is another sign of weak legislation they say was hijacked by DCS and its supporters, then watered down and slipped into the budget bill at the eleventh hour.

Hoppe said it is too soon to talk about specifics of how her office will operate or what types of cases she will review.

“My first priorities,” she said, “will be to set up policies and procedures to receive and investigate complaints and to set up guidelines for prioritizing reviews.”

Daniels — who said he will not get involved in Hoppe’s work, such as asking her to look into specific cases — has made it clear his vision for the ombudsman has nothing to do with advocating for families that have complaints about DCS, the agency he created in 2005.

Daniels said his goal for the office is to “continue strengthening the improvement and oversight of our award-winning child protection system without undermining the morale or efforts of hard-working and compassionate caseworkers.”

Dawn Robertson, spokeswoman for the family rights group HonkforKids, which was among early champions in the push for an ombudsman, said Daniels’ statement is telling. Robertson said her organization has documented nearly 10,000 instances of alleged mistreatment of families and misconduct by DCS and its partners. She said the allegations involve human and civil rights abuses, policy and procedural violations and instances of caseworkers lying and threatening families.

The number of complaints is likely to grow in the wake of DCS’ actions in 2008, when Indiana recorded the largest increase in the country in children removed from their families, according to the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. The organization also reported that the 9,375 removals in Indiana — children taken at a rate nearly 60 percent above the national average — is the most in at least a decade.

“We were hoping the ombudsman would be an avenue where families could have someone pursue their complaints,” Robertson said, “but it isn’t going to change anything the way it is now.”

She’s among those concerned about Hoppe’s ties to the state child welfare system.

Hoppe oversaw a staff of 50 that investigated child abuse and neglect reports in Marion County when she worked for the state’s child welfare system. At that same time, current DCS Director James Payne was the Marion County juvenile court judge. Many of the cases Hoppe’s staff investigated ended up in Payne’s court.

“I think she is an insider and way too close,” Robertson said. “That will ultimately, either directly or indirectly, render her incapable of providing unbiased opinions. I believe her loyalty will be with the agency, rather than the families or those in the middle who are looking for help.”

But Hoppe said concerns of bias are “a nonissue.” She said it has been nine years since she worked in the state’s child welfare system and that she never worked directly with Payne.

“I consider my experience a plus in terms of understanding the vulnerabilities and strengths of this system,” she said.

Graham, of IARCCA, said she thinks Hoppe is “an excellent choice” for the job.

“She’s not a political person, and she is a very fair person,” Graham said.

But will she dig into the specific actions of DCS caseworkers?

Robertson is among those particularly disappointed that the ombudsman was not directed to review the deaths of children involved in open cases or recently closed DCS cases. Ombudsmen in Michigan and Washington must review such deaths.

An ombudsman’s review is critical, Robertson said, because confidentiality regulations prohibit DCS from commenting on its actions in specific cases. Often, the only investigation when a child dies is done by DCS, and the results are not made public.

Indianapolis attorney Chris Worden, who formerly worked as a public defender representing families in Marion County juvenile court and now volunteers as a guardian ad litem, was another who lobbied the state to create an ombudsman post. By the end of the legislative session, however, Worden was hoping the weakened bill would die because it lacked true independence and amounts to little more than adding to DCS staff.

Worden said he was further disheartened to see the comments Daniels made when he announced Hoppe’s appointment. The governor noted “we can never do enough to protect our little ones from the selfishness or even brutality of irresponsible parents,” but didn’t mention any help for families that have complaints about DCS actions.

“Any time somebody takes a strong position one way, such as Governor Daniels did in his quote about irresponsible parents, you have to worry,” Worden said.

A true ombudsman, he explained, “would recognize that in most cases DCS gets it right, but in a portion, they keep a child out of a home and cause harm, and in a portion, they put a child back too quickly and cause harm.”

Office is short on cash, staff

But even if Hoppe decides to investigate deaths — and does so in nonpartisan fashion — does she have the muscle to do it?

The Michigan ombudsman’s office has 11 full-time employees, and Washington, with a population comparable to Indiana’s, has eight full-time staff members.

“Without at least a part-time investigator, I don’t know how you get that job done,” Worden said.

The small budget for Indiana’s office — $145,000 a year, which includes Hoppe’s $90,000 salary — is a red flag to Bill Angrick, the citizens’ ombudsman in Iowa.

“One of the biggest mistakes you can make,” Angrick said, “is to create an office with all these high hopes and expectations and then underfund it. It’s a recipe for failure — or at least dissatisfaction.”

Cindy Booth, executive director of Child Advocates Inc., who provides advocates for Marion County children involved in DCS cases, also is disappointed.

“When people started talking about an ombudsman,” Booth said, “I researched Michigan’s program and believed this could be such a vital part of accountability and assessment of our child welfare system in Indiana.”

But, she added, “that will be difficult with such a limited budget.” And that, Booth fears, shows a comprehensive approach is not a priority to state officials.

“What I hope the presence of an ombudsman will do is tighten everyone’s focus on whether we really are serving the child and assisting the family,” she said. “The problem with our system is that when it goes wrong, it often goes horribly wrong — up to and including the deaths of children.”

She and Graham also fear Hoppe could quickly become overwhelmed by complaints about individual cases.

“So many people are hanging their hopes on this office — and for a variety of different reasons,” Booth said. “I always thought of it being more about systemwide accountability, and my fear is it will be seen as a quasi-appeal system by many others and quickly get bogged down.”

But Brown, the state representative who sponsored the original ombudsman bill, said he expects Hoppe to investigate alleged abuses by DCS.

“A lot of the testimony in favor of the bill came from parents and family members who did not have an opportunity to have their concerns addressed,” he explained. “When I get a chance to talk to the ombudsman, I will make sure she knows what the intent of the legislation was.”

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One Response

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  1. This is affecting my child who is in residential treatment. What can we do? Are there any media willing to hear our story, any attorneys willing to represent our child against the state?

    Kathy Workman

    January 7, 2010 at 12:56 am


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