Although much improved from its troubled beginnings under founding Director James Payne, there are clues that DCS still lacks the resources to meet its responsibility to Indiana children in need. One is the outright acknowledgment that the agency doesn’t have enough caseworkers to keep track of children at risk. A lawsuit alleging DCS violated the Fair Labor Standards Act is even more alarming.
Lake County case managers Arlene Nunez and Veronica Martinez have filed a lawsuit in federal court in Hammond, claiming DCS denied them and other employees payment for overtime work. They allege the agency deducted time from weeks when they had worked more than 40 hours and shifted it to weeks they had worked fewer to avoid paying the higher rate, court records state.
The suit also alleges Nunez and Martinez were required to work through lunch hours and on-call shifts and emergency calls prevented them from getting five hours of continuous sleep. The case managers claim they were required to spend extensive time outside regular work hours responding to emergencies, investigating calls and writing reports — work for which they received no overtime pay.
When they complained, according to the lawsuit, they were told by supervisors, “Don’t even bring it up.”
Nunez is a 14-year employee; Martinez has worked for child protection services for 36 years, according to state records.
Their attorney, Adam Sedia of Dyer, said there is evidence DCS employees in other cities might have faced similar demands. He is seeking a class-action lawsuit.
A DCS spokesman would not comment last month on the pending litigation. But before the Child Services Oversight Committee last month, Director Mary Beth Bonaventura said the agency has a 17 percent turnover among caseworkers. About 100 caseworkers have been hired in the past year, and another 10 positions will be filled before year’s end.
Adding to the complexity is the absence of reliable data on caseloads. State law requires case managers assigned to new cases to have responsibility for no more than 12 cases at a time because of the serious needs of the children involved. Family case managers who oversee established cases are limited to no more than 17.
State Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, said during the oversight panel last month hiring caseworkers is difficult because of low starting wages and job pressures. He said he hopes to get the agency more funding in the next biennial budget.
But funding is just one part of the equation. DCS, like most other agencies, has reverted money toward the state’s $2 billion surplus. In the last fiscal year, it reverted more than $4 million earmarked for child protection services. In 2013, about $3.8 million went unspent. The figures represent a small percentage of the agency’s $550-million-plus budget, but it is proportionately higher than reversions by the Department of Natural Resources, veterans affairs and homeland security.
The outcry over DCS’ early, stumbling steps made it clear the public expects the state to serve children in crisis. Lawmakers answered with tougher oversight and increased funding. When it comes to reversions, DCS should take a pass and put all available resources toward responding to abuse and neglect. It can begin by making sure case managers get paid for the long and difficult hours they work.