There’s plenty of blame to go around in the tragic story of a local 4-year-old who was failed by adults and became badly malnourished.
A police affidavit described the boy as “nearly unresponsive. ... The child could barely open his eyes and was making inaudible sounds.”
The Indiana Department of Child Services caseworker, Spencer Osborn, 26, who has been charged by a Madison County grand jury with four counts of felony neglect of a dependent, seems at fault. Authorities say he failed to do welfare checks on the child.
The 4-year-old’s mother, Kathryn Hill, 28, appears to have failed the child, too. After being returned to her care by the state, the boy suffered from severe neglect, according to police. She’s been charged with felony child neglect.
The DCS must shoulder the blame, as well, particularly given its poor history of assuring that the health and living conditions of at-risk children are properly monitored. The department’s problems are deep and varied, including recent difficulties making payments to contractors who provide services to children in the DCS system.
In a written statement to The Herald Bulletin, Osborn’s attorney, Phillip Sheward, pointed to a systemic problem with the DCS.
“Mr. Osborn does not understand why he is being singled out and charged criminally for returning a child to his biological mother as part of a Child In Need of Services (“CHINS”) case,” Sheward wrote. “These decisions are not made by a single caseworker, but in collaboration with their supervisors and child advocates, then ultimately approved by the court.”
Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings thinks the DCS’s failures trace to an ill-conceived philosophy that prioritizes reuniting children with their birth families over the health and safety of the child.
“Last year we had four children murdered in this community,” Cummings said. “We got a new director of child services. I was hoping things were going to change. It did for a little while, but things like this continue to happen.”
While Cummings might be right about DCS priorities, the department’s larger problem is that it lacks the resources and staff training to handle a caseload bloated by nefarious sources such as poverty, drug abuse and generational domestic violence.
Some caseworkers like Osborn are young, relatively inexperienced in the working world and don’t have the maturity, education or expertise to navigate a stressful job littered with minefields.
Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Indiana General Assembly must overhaul the DCS to not only prioritize the health and safety of Hoosier children above all else, but to turn it into a professional organization with the manpower, training and commitment to assure that a strong, resilient safety net catches all.