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updated: 4/23/2013 10:05 AM

Indiana child deaths surge in 1st year of hotline

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Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- The number of children who died because of abuse or neglect in Indiana surged in the first year of a statewide hotline, and the Department of Child Services said it didn't get involved with about 90 percent of those children until after they died.

Forty children died of abuse or neglect in 2011, the most recent year for which data have been compiled, according to an annual report released Monday. That's up from 25 the previous year and occurred in the first year of a statewide hotline system designed to streamline reporting of such cases.

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There is no one reason for the increase, but DCS officials note that many of the cases involve common factors: a child left in the care of a parent's boyfriend, drug abuse or domestic violence.

DCS officials told The Associated Press prior to releasing the report that only six of the children who died had a prior history with the agency. In 2010, four of the children involved in fatal cases had prior involvement with DCS.

In one case, a 13-year-old Gary boy was beaten, kept in a dog cage and fed Ramen noodles and leftovers. DCS records show the agency investigated the boy's parents before his death but didn't uncover any wrongdoing in his care.

In another, a 3-year-old Fort Wayne boy died during an exorcism attempt.

Agency spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland said DCS had previous contact with nine other families of children who died. Three of those cases involved the child who died, but caseworkers did not find enough physical evidence of abuse or neglect to justify further action, she said.

Contact in the other cases involved either the person responsible for the death of the child or a parent.

Department of Child Services officials said the agency has no power to prevent abuse. In most years, DCS has no involvement with the majority of the children who die, agency Chief of Staff John Ryan told The Associated Press.

A number of deaths involve social issues that the government cannot control, officials said.

"I'm not sure DCS can do some of these things by itself," said the agency's new director, former Lake County Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura, who took over the agency a few weeks ago.

"How do you legislate morality? How do you legislate common sense? How do you legislate people to not have addictive personalities?" she said.

The report came in the first year the agency used a central hotline to receive reports of abuse and neglect from across the state. The hotline came under criticism last year from lawmakers and children's advocates who said hotline workers screened out calls that should have been investigated, including cases of sexual abuse. Others complained about wait times or said that even after they reported an issue to the hotline, hours passed before a DCS caseworker arrived to investigate.

A bill was introduced to require DCS to turn over all hotline reports to the local level to determine which should be investigated. But the beleaguered agency made the change on its own March 1.

DCS officials defended the hotline, saying that before it was implemented, local child protection workers might not have aggressively pursued some cases because they knew the family.

Chief of Staff John Ryan said at a news conference Monday that a change in state law since the period covered in the report now allows the agency to keep reports on unsubstantiated abuse cases until the family's youngest child turns 24 years old. Previously, those reports could only be kept for six months.

Ryan said that change had led to an increase in the number of family assessments being done by the agency.

"That lets us cross-reference prior reports, prior history, so that we can better assess the risk children in a family are exposed to," Ryan said.

Nearly half -- 48 percent -- of the deaths from abuse included in the report involved children under a year old, and head injuries were the most prevalent cause.

Bonaventura said the point of the report was to learn from it and do a better job.

"The whole point is to identify trends, strengths and weaknesses in the system to reduce or eliminate the number of children who end up dead," she said.

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Associated Press writer Tom Davies contributed to this report.

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