By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors
Indiana, like most states in the country, has no shortage of vulnerable, at-risk children. Indiana’s kids, however, may be more fortunate than others in that they have friends in high places.
The state’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush and state Sen. Travis Holdman (R-Markle) have been strong advocates for Indiana’s children for a large portion of their time in public service. Both have spent significant time at the grassroots level learning about issues affecting this population.
For Rush, it included volunteering in the 1980s as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), making recommendations to a judge on behalf of neglected or abused children, and as a judge, visiting the institutions where she would sentence young people. Holdman has been associated with Child Protection Services in Indiana for over 40 years.
Five years ago, they worked in concert to affect state-level change. They advocated and tenaciously supported the creation of the Commission on Improving the Status of Children in Indiana. Holdman saw a need and sponsored the legislation and said Rush and others worked doggedly to support the effort. Both believed there needed to be regular attention paid to improving the status of children.
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“There were so many different entities that touch children, but there was no coordination between the entities. When we did research for the children’s commission, we found 31 committees or commissions on the record books dealing with children and child-related issues,” said Rush who has served as chief justice since 2014. Over a year, they did a global overview and determined that a children’s commission could pull all these entities together.
Although Holdman said there was no one incident that led to the commission’s creation, the overarching reason was that with the many parts and pieces and different agencies, it often resulted in duplication of services and payment.
Established by Senate Bill 125 in 2013, the 18-member commission includes leaders from the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government, but more importantly, its positions are specifically named in the statute. Five members form the executive committee and the commission chairmanship rotates among the three branches of government.
Holdman said from the start they were adamant that the leader of a division be the representative.
“Bill drafters wanted to add ‘designee.’ We said, ‘No, we’re not going to put that language in because they will never come to a meeting, if we do that.’ The commissioner of health, the superintendent of public instruction, and the attorney general, all of those leaders need to be personally involved so that we get their attention, and they help determine how to resolve issues for children.
“I think having all three branches is what makes it unique from other states,” said Holdman who rotated off the commission and was replaced by Sen. Erin Houchin (R-Salem). Not all states have commissions, and Indiana’s was scheduled to sunset in 2019. That, however, was changed to 2029 in the most recent legislative session.
Last September, Julie Whitman became the commission’s first full-time executive director. Previously she was Indiana Youth Institute’s (IYI) vice president of Statewide Engagement and Advocacy, and also served as a co-chairperson for the commission’s data sharing and mapping committee.
At the commission’s inception, Rush said that data-gathering was among the most important things it would do. And Whitman is well poised to help make that happen. For the past 24 years, one of IYI’s annual publications has been the KIDS COUNT data book, which provides easily accessible, reliable data regarding childhood well-being in five categories: families and communities, economy, education, health and safety. Whitman believes the commission takes it one step further.
“I think that the commission picks up where KIDS COUNT leaves off, in the sense that the data book gives a general picture of the state. Then these guys are tasked with researching, ‘OK, now what do we do about it? What are other states doing about it?’ So they’re doing a different type of research. Really looking at interventions and best practices and policies,” she said.
One of the first important tasks that the commission did, Holdman said, was to build an inventory of all the services around the state. It helped the commission learn where the gaps and holes in services were geographically.
The commission has also been able to raise the visibility of issues, like infant mortality.
“We brought that to light, got Governor Pence’s attention and the state held the first infant mortality symposium. So as much as anything, it’s not doing the work itself, but bringing the issues to light for the public to be aware of it. Folks in a lot of different communities have stepped up to the plate to address the issue locally,” said the senator who has represented his district since 2008.
Rush said a tangential effect is collaboration.
“You have people who have never sat around the table who are dealing with state-wide policies who have never communicated with each other. When you get different people who care, it’s really interesting to see how these partners help,” she said.
At the start, the commission met quarterly for four hours. When Whitman came on board, she did a listening tour. The majority mentioned the length of meetings. Now the group meets more frequently — six times a year for two hours. Meetings are held from 10 a.m. to noon on the third Wednesday of each month.
And they have made progress.
The commission is not doing this work in isolation. Four task forces provide insight and expertise, each representing one priority of the strategic plan — Child Safety and Services, Educational Outcomes, Mental Health and Substance Abuse and Juvenile Justice and Cross-system Youth.
“None of the commission members sit on the task forces. Altogether under the Children’s Commission umbrella, we have about 150 people working on issues, and that includes the commission members themselves,” said Whitman. The committees include individuals from both government agencies and nonprofit leaders. About 30 to 40 percent are non-governmental employees.
“The commission has really said to these task forces, ‘You are the subject matter experts, bring us your recommendations, we want to take action and create policies that really are driven by what works in the field,’” said Whitman.
“Even though they’re volunteers, they’ve agreed to do this work and hold each other accountable. We’ve started a process where every task force reports out at every commission meeting, so I think this helps them just stay invested in the work and really make sure these objectives are moving forward,” she said.
When the task force is ready to bring a recommendation to the commission, it asks to be placed on the commission’s agenda. At the commission meeting, there is a hearing that includes discussion and questions.
Whitman provided two concrete accomplishments since the fall.
One identified need was additional mental health therapists and counselors. The Mental Health and Substance Abuse Task Force was charged with researching what could be done at the state level to increase the available number. A subcommittee discovered a specific barrier to state licensing: Indiana law has an internship requirement of 1,000 hours, whereas most nationally accredited programs require only 700.
So the committee offered a recommendation to change that requirement, which was approved unanimously, and according to Whitman, also came up with an innovation.
“Once an individual has an initial clinical license, he or she has to have hours of supervision from a person with the same type of licensing. In rural areas, especially, it can be a challenge to find a supervisor who has a specialization to get the required hours of face-to-face supervision,” she said.
So the task force recommended that 50 percent of those hours be virtual to ease the burden.
Both recommendations were approved unanimously. That particular task force is chaired by Sen. Randall Head (R-Logansport), and he filed that bill with the Indiana General Assembly that made it all the way through.
“I thought that was a pretty exciting win for this past year,” said Whitman.
Another example was from the Child Safety and Services Task Force. One of its objectives is addressing teen suicide in Indiana. That task force researched Zero Suicide Academy, which is a policy approach and designed specifically for hospital emergency departments and community mental health centers to make sure that the safety net has no holes and that those contemplating suicide don’t fall through the cracks.
“After completing the research, the task force recommended that the commission endorse the academy. WFYI was at the commission meeting and broadcast a segment. There was greater public awareness. I was able to reach out to the head of the hospital association and say, ‘Hey, the Children’s Commission has just approved this, can you get this information out to your hospital members?” And he was very happy to do so. And that kind of power of collaboration and just raising awareness sometimes, can get an initiative a little further than maybe it would have gotten otherwise,” said Whitman.
Diverse perspectives can help clarification language. Recently at a meeting, there was a discussion about the words “wrap-around services.”
“Some folks who are steeped in the mental health field said ‘wrap-around’ has a very particular meaning within the mental health world, which we think actually is not what was meant here. We think it’s actually school-based services. So they re-worded that objective, and the commission said fine,” said Whitman.
“I think there’s a kind of deference and respect in both directions between the commission and the task forces, so when those subject matter experts come and say, ‘We just wanted to clarify and make sure this was your intent,’ the commission has a great respect for the expertise in those groups.”
So what’s next? Whitman said that the commission is waiting for the Department of Child Services assessment report in June and assumes it will affect what the commission is doing.
“I’m not sure we’re where we need to be, but at least we have a framework in place that we can use to monitor what’s going on to get a better handle on it,” said Holdman.
Whitman said she would love the state to get to a point where we have an overall vulnerable youth dashboard, children’s budget or fiscal map and match them up.
“Ultimately we need to say, ‘What’s the return on investment? What are we doing as a state for kids? Is it as effective as it can be? Is it as efficient as it can be?”