- Associated Press - Thursday, August 13, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Gov. Mike Pence announced Thursday that Indiana’s child welfare agency is hiring another 113 caseworkers to deal with a skyrocketing number of abuse and neglect cases.

The Department of Child Services says it has seen a 26 percent increase in its caseload over the past year. The Republican governor blamed much of that increase on drug abuse, particularly heroin addiction.

“When we read about unthinkable acts against our most vulnerable, the loss of innocent lives due to neglect and abuse in our state, it’s heartbreaking,” Pence said during a news conference. “We need to ensure our kids have the protection and support they need.”

The call to add more case workers comes just one month after an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that accused the state of overworking caseworkers and failing to comply with caseload standards.

DCS leaders say that only one of its 19 regions has been meeting a 2007 law requiring DCS case managers to average no more than 12 initial assessments or 17 ongoing cases per worker.

By hiring the new workers, Pence’s administration says the agency will be compliant with the law, basing that claim on the number of cases the agency had in June.

Still, DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura said the agency, which currently has about 1,340 case workers and another 189 in training, could fall out of compliance if reports of abuse and neglect continue to rise.

“We don’t have the option of compliance,” Bonaventura said. “We don’t have option of (saying), ‘Y’know what, we don’t want to be out of compliance, we’re not gonna come and pick up Johnny with cigarette burns, you can keep him.’”

After Pence’s announcement, the ACLU said it would evaluate the effect of the hiring but stopped short of saying the move would adequately improve conditions.

“It appears that the State is attempting to address the fact that DCS is currently failing to comply with the mandatory caseload standards that the Legislature established to protect Hoosier children,” ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk said in a statement.

Pence came under fire during the legislative session from Democrats, who accused the governor of not setting aside money to improve the agency’s handling of cases.

Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, a vocal Pence critic on the issue, said Thursday that the move to hire more caseworkers is “progress” but called on Pence tap into the state’s $2 billion surplus “to make the structural changes required.”

“There are still areas of the state where significant gaps exist, where family case managers are handling many times the number of cases legally permitted under the law,” Lanane, of Anderson, said in a statement.

Earlier this year, the Legislature approved $7.5 million to add about 100 caseworkers after the agency was criticized for not complying with the caseload law.

The announcement Thursday represents a second wave of hiring, expected to cost an additional $7.2 million, though Pence told reporters that he did not know specifically where the money would come from.

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