Health & Human Services

The Politics of Children and Family Services

A toxic election cycle in Indiana has ended in the resignation of the state's director of children services.
by , | October 9, 2012

At the end of September, Judge James Payne resigned as director of the Indiana Department of Child Services. Payne and his leadership team took on a fragmented, insular and outdated agency in 2005, and turned it into one of the better state children and family services departments in the country. (By way of full disclosure, I was paid to write a report on the department and its transformation under Payne for the Annie E. Casey Foundation.)

Once at or near the bottom of virtually every category of child services performance measures among the 50 states, Indiana now ranks among the best performers in key areas like reunification, timeliness of adoption, permanency and placement stability.

Since launching reforms, the state has seen a more than 40 percent decline in residential placements, a nearly 15 percent decline in the use of foster care, a more than 30 percent increase in in-home placements and a more than 90 percent increase in placements with relatives. Adoptions have also increased from 1,045 in 2004 to 1,542 in 2010, a nearly 70 percent increase. Meanwhile, the state drastically reduced caseloads by hiring hundreds of new front-line caseworkers and supervisors.

Payne's resignation illustrates the political nature of his job. Democrats in the Indiana Legislature, angry over Republican Gov. Mitch Daniel's efforts to pass anti-union legislation this spring, decided to use children and family services as a way to hit back. They organized a series of hearings attacking the department for the sorts of tragedies and failures that every state children and family services department routinely experiences. At the same time, a gubernatorial race has been heating up, and what better way to hurt the Republicans than to go after Daniels' signature accomplishment as governor.

Providers also piled on Payne because of the department's ongoing efforts to de-institutionalize kids. Institutionalization costs a ton of money and doesn't deliver very good results, but providers love it because it pays so well. "Heads in beds" has been a provider mantra for decades.

Protecting kids and trying to preserve families isn't only the hardest job in government, it's by far the most politically dangerous. In resigning, Payne joins an ever-growing list of first-rate leaders in the human services field who were either fired or driven out of office thanks to politics and a brutal and often purposefully ignorant press. I think Gov. Daniels went easy on the Fourth Estate in his press release accepting Payne's resignation when he said: "… attacks on (Payne's) record have ranged from innocently ignorant to despicably political and self-interested."

In an exchange I had with an editor at the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette over an op-ed I'd submitted in defense of the department's overall performance, I got this note:

Those of us who have been working in Indiana for decades are well aware of the clever ways this administration has of handling data to make its case. The real story isn't in the numbers -- it's in the children and families behind those numbers. How fitting that Judge Payne has a spectacular story to contribute himself, given the tremendous pain he has created across the state.

Here's some data for you -- $104 million. That's the amount of money Payne reverted to the state's general fund so that Gov. Daniels could boast of a state surplus. That's $104 million cut from child protection services in a single year -- lots of stories behind that number and plenty of people to argue that Indiana children and families are much worse off now than they were before Daniels and Payne arrived on the scene.

The Journal Gazette's editorial team is picking and choosing facts here. The real story is that kids and families in Indiana are by far better off now than they were seven or eight years ago; just look at the numbers.

The good news and ultimate takeaway is that Payne and his team, understanding the nature of politics from the start, got much of what they've implemented -- including organizational restructuring and capped caseloads -- established in statute. So, whoever is brave or crazy enough to take Payne's job will at least have a structure in place that preserves the essential accomplishments of reform.

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