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Posted: Thursday, December 19, 2013 11:04 am | Updated: 11:09 am, Thu Dec 19, 2013.

Now that Mary Beth Bonaventura is firmly settled into her position as director of Indiana Department of Child Services, she’s got some ideas to change the department that is currently good into one that is great.

“There’s a book that Gov. Mike Pence read and gave to all of the agency heads called Good to Great by Jim Collins and he charged us with the task of coming up with a plan. As a team we identified three areas that would make this agency great,” said Bonaventura.

Many are unaware that DCS has a 300-staff division dedicated to court-ordered child support. Bonaventura said last year DCS processed and distributed close to $1 billion in child support. DCS also increased its ranking among other states’ child support divisions.

Hoosier children were able to receive funds, however it was processed using outdated technology. One of Bonaventura’s goals is improving this system.

“A better system will help us track and identify absent parents better, process the money quicker and get money to children sooner, which will enhance their wellbeing,” she said.

The new system is estimated to cost close to $85 million. It must also go through five years of federal government feasibility studies, however doing this will allow Indiana to be reimbursed by the federal government 67 percent. DCS has already completed the first of a series of federal guidelines.

One of DCS’s major responsibilities is to protect abused and neglected children. Last year, primarily via the Child Abuse Hotline, the agency received 172,000 calls concerning child abuse and neglect, and assessed over 90,000 of those cases.

Bonaventura said one thing the department hasn’t done very well is address the trauma kids have undergone. A recent study shows that children who “go through the system” have lower graduation rates, higher youth pregnancy rates, experience health problems at higher rates and die earlier than their peers who don’t experience child trauma.

To change this trend, Bonaventura said DCS service providers will add evidence-based trauma help to the roster of services they provide to Hoosier children and families. Also within 30 days of a child leaving home, they will be assessed for trauma. And within 30 days of trauma identification, kids will receive care.

All DCS staff will be trained to identify trauma by the end of 2014.

This training is a small part of Bonaventura’s plan for staff. Her final goal for the department is to create a better work environment for existing staff and recruit and retain a qualified and competent workforce.

“Part of keeping them healthy and not overworked is that we follow what the law says. And the law says for every case manager, they should have 12 initial assessment cases, meaning they’re new, and 17 ongoing cases,” said Bonavantura. “The real harm comes when we fall away from those numbers or we have a rise in cases, like last year.”

Bonaventura realizes this task is one of a balancing act. For example, if a caseworker quits, it takes four to five months to train someone to replace them. The agency director said every two weeks 25 new employees begin training.

Once those employees complete training, they arrive at offices finding a greater number of cases and more difficult cases than in the past. The statewide, centralized child abuse hotline has made it easier for Hoosiers to report family issues and according to the Indiana Youth Institute Kids Count Data Book, more Hoosier kids are living in poverty. Also, drug use has increased.

“We know what to do with a drug baby exposed to crack, but when you have babies born exposed to methamphetamine they’re born with their heart outside of their body; I’ve had cases where the child had no rectum. Heroin and prescription painkillers are on the rise. These drugs are devastating families,” said Bonaventura.

Marion County followed by Lake County has the most cases yet Bonaventura contends that Southeast Indiana has the worst drug and quality of life problems. She’s created a task force to further address drug issues among families.

Things aren’t all bad for caseworkers. Staffers now receive a monthly newsletter and the Hammond, Ind., native regularly visits Indiana’s county offices with hopes of breaking down walls between the central office and smaller offices.

Bonaventura has a lot on her plate, but many say she’s more than capable of handling the task of being at the helm of DCS.

“Every decision she makes is in the best interest of children. Sometimes that can be difficult because you have adults with differing opinions. Her No. 1 dedication is to the safety and wellbeing of children. She’s also very personable with both children and staff,” said Jane Bisbee, deputy director of field operations for DCS and a colleague of Bonaventura in Lake County. “Everything she’s done in her career has lead her to this point.”

A former Lake County juvenile court judge, Bonaventura has been helping Hoosier kids since 1993 when she was first appointed to the bench by Gov. Evan Bayh. Due to her reputation of consistently doing what’s best for kids, she was selected earlier this year by Gov. Pence to lead DCS.

“I think he saw a champion for children in me,” said Bonaventura.

For more information on the Indiana Department of Child Services, contact your local office or visit In.gov/dcs. You can reach the Indiana Child Abuse/Neglect Hotline at (800) 800-5556.

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