In Brown County, more than 20 children, from infants to teenagers, need a temporary home.
Brown County has 10 to 15 active foster homes.
Some foster parents became licensed in order to take in a specific relative and are not interested in accepting other children, said Harmony Gist, Brown County’s director of the Department of Child Services.
Currently, DCS has 30 CHINS cases — Child in Need of Services — and 25 of them have been removed from their home, Gist said.
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The entire state is at a crisis level for foster families, she said.
It’s important to keep those children in their own communities.
“It’s going to be traumatic enough to have to leave the home if it’s not safe, so what we try to do is reduce trauma to children,” she said.
“If you can keep them within their own community, in their own schools, in an environment in which they’re familiar with … that’s ideal.”
Gist became director of Brown County’s DCS office in July.She had been covering since last March when former director Debbie Dailey took a new job at the state level.
Gist, a Brown County native, has worked for DCS for 10 years.
A common misconception about DCS is that the goal is to remove children from the home. Rather, DCS provides services to rehabilitate the family, Gist said.
“We try to keep families together first and preserve the family unit as they are. Our goal is to strengthen them and help them become a better, stronger family by the time we leave their life,” she said.
Four DCS case managers work in Brown County. In total, they complete an average of 25 assessments per month.
An assessment is conducted when a call is made to the DCS child abuse and neglect hotline.
Some assessments may result in a case not being opened if DCS cannot find evidence of abuse or neglect.
Others may lead to an “informal adjustment,” a six-month program that provides services to the family.
In the past year, an average of 20.5 percent of all reports made to the local DCS office resulted in a case being opened.
The state average for the year so far is 15.8 percent, Gist said.
“We are slightly higher, but pretty much in line with the rest of the state’s trends,” she said.
Services offered to families can include parenting skills training, home-based case management — helping with the daily functions of the home like budgeting or house cleaning — or other aid.
Mental health treatment also is available through DCS for parents and children.
“We see that a lot, where parents don’t realize they need to be working with a mental health agency and we can connect them here in town with Centerstone,” Gist said.
“We pay for these services, so there’s no burden to the family; we can just strengthen them.”
Report, report, report
Though DCS’s goal is to preserve the family unit, that is not always possible.“Removals happen when we simply cannot ensure safety with services, a support system, (like) friends, family, neighbors,” Gist said.
If any case is opened, it must be approved by Brown Circuit Court.
“Ultimately if a court approves our decision, the child can remain out of home with the goal of being reunified,” she said.
The average time in which a child who has been removed needs an alternate place to stay is 175 days, Gist said, but that varies.
A child can be removed from their home at any point in a DCS case if they are deemed unsafe, she said.
Children’s exposure to drug abuse has caused an increase in DCS cases, Gist said — heroin, methamphetamine and prescription opiate usage.
“That is a trend across the state, and we are no different. For our small county, we’ve been plagued heavily with those cases and that has increased our caseload sizes,” she said.
Awareness about child abuse is causing an increase, too, Gist said.
By law, every Hoosier — not just school and medical workers — must report suspected child abuse or neglect.
State law defines abuse and neglect when it defines children in need of services: When a child’s mental or physical condition is seriously impaired or endangered; a child is missing; or a child has been a victim of a sex crime.
Calling the Indiana Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline is the best way to make a report, Gist said.
The support system
A case is closed if a parent has met their obligations or DCS has found a different, permanent plan that satisfies the court.The average time a CHINS case is open is about a year and a half, but that can vary depending on the case.
The permanent solution could be returning the child to his or her home if parents have met their obligations.
If that is not an option, DCS would look at adoption or guardianship. If the child is an older, he or she may be able to stay in the foster home while transitioning to college and finishing high school, Gist said.
Once the court decides a case is closed, DCS cannot return to that family unless a new report of abuse or neglect is filed, Gist said.
“Parents have a right to parent the children as they see fit without us overseeing it, without a court intervention,” Gist said. “Once court closes that case, we do not go back and check and we do not oversee that family.”
The Child and Family Team, or the support system, then takes on a more important role. This is a group of friends, family and neighbors — the safety net who can catch something happening after DCS is out of the picture.
“When we’re not here, who’s going to catch the child if something is happening? That’s neighbors, that’s family, that’s aunts, that’s uncles, grandma and grandpa, school,” Gist said.
“Ideally, when we leave their life, this is their support system, not us. We’re the government. You want us out.”
Indiana foster parents must:
• Be licensed by the Department of Child Services, even they complete training through another agency.
• Be at least 21.
• Pass criminal and background checks.
• Demonstrate financial stability and not be a foster parent only for income. “You get assistance per diem for the child, but you can’t rely on that to live,” Brown County DCS Director Harmony Gist said.
• Own or rent a home that meets physical safety standards: adequate bedroom space, reliable transportation, fire extinguishers, etc. A home checklist is provided by DCS.
• Get a medical statement from a physician for all household members. Foster parents are not required to have a perfect bill of health, but DCS does not want to place children in a home where the parent may not be able to care for them or may die from an illness. “We’re not going to put a kid in that home only to be uprooted,” Gist said.
• Complete training, plus First Aid and CPR.
• Submit three positive personal references.
• Allow home visits from the licensing specialist.
• Complete home study interviews.
• Be willing to fill out several forms.
There is no cost to apply. Applications can be picked up at the local DCS office, 121 Locust Lane. The approval process takes 3 to 4 months.
To learn more, visit fostercare.in.gov, or call the local DCS office at 812-988-2239 and leave a message for Gist.
The Department of Child Services can offer a variety of services to children and families, for free, to help prevent child abuse and neglect and strengthen families.
Parenting skills training is available.
So is home-based case management — helping with the daily functions of the home like budgeting or house cleaning.
DCS also has community partners which offer services to help families before intervention is necessary, Director Harmony Gist said. Healthy Families, First Steps and Head Start are some.
DCS also can help children who are about ready to turn 18 and age out of the system; they can remain under DCS jurisdiction and supervision until they are 20, Gist said.
Collaborative Care is available to older children whose best interest may not be served by reuniting them with their family. The one-on-one program helps get the children to adult age and teaches them adult skills, like how to apply for a job or open a bank account.
DCS also offers the Children’s Mental Health Initiative, which provides free mental health care to qualifying children so that they do not enter the child welfare or probation system for the sole purpose of accessing free services, according to the DCS website.
The Indiana Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline is 1-800-800-5556.