Gov. Eric Holcomb sought in his State of the State to reassure Hoosiers his administration will do “whatever it takes” to fix problems at the Department of Child Services.
But Democratic legislative leaders say Holcomb’s address lacked boldness and leadership, particularly when it comes to the ongoing DCS crisis.
Controversy erupted last month when former director Mary Beth Bonaventura’s resignation letter said Holcomb administration policies would lead to child deaths.
Holcomb waited until close to the end of his speech to address that elephant in the room. And he didn’t say much, devoting less than two minutes of a 30-minute address to the issue. The governor assured people he’s committed to the issue, thanked caseworkers, and applauded his choice for new DCS director, Terry Stigdon.
Holcomb also touched on his decision to hire a consultant to review the agency.
“We’ve engaged outside experts to conduct a complete assessment of the safety and welfare of our children,” Holcomb says. “We’ll be transparent and we’ll provide you directly with progress reports.”
The Holcomb administration says there will be at least two progress reports delivered to lawmakers and the public before the legislative session ends in mid-March.
Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane (D-Anderson) says solving the problem will take more than that.
“I think it’s going to have to be concrete plans on identification of what the issues are, what are the solutions, what are the resources needed,” Lanane says.
House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) waved aside Democrats’ criticisms.
“Well of course the minority would like to see more emphasis on a negative,” Bosma says. “I think the governor did it just the way he should.”
Bosma says the proper time to act is after the independent consultant’s report is finished.
Holcomb used the bulk of his speech to reiterate the key pillars of his agenda – points he’s emphasized since the rollout of that agenda two months ago.
But his address to the General Assembly included new, specific benchmarks he wants the state and his administration to meet.
That includes targets that would see tens of thousands of Hoosiers enrolled in high-demand, high-wage education and job training programs by the end of this year. And it involves a multi-year goal to ensure more people leave the state’s prison system having graduated from certificate programs.
“Add all this up, and we’re talking about more than 1 million of our fellow Hoosiers that need and can be skilled up,” Holcomb says.
Republican legislative leaders say Holcomb’s benchmarks are a bold step in the workforce development conversation.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long (R-Fort Wayne) says Holcomb’s goals will help direct the legislature as debate moves forward.
“I think he hit it right on the money and it’s our task to try to figure out how to achieve those goals,” Long says.
House Minority Leader Terry Goodin (D-Austin) applauded Holcomb’s specifics but says he was disappointed by what he didn’t hear.
“What we’ve got to talk about is not only do we bring those people back into the education realm, but how do we tackle the huge mountains of debt that people may [incur] when they come back into the education realm?” Austin says.
The governor’s new benchmarks aren’t limited to workforce development. He also set a goal that within six years, Indiana will have a better infant mortality rate than any other state in the Midwest.
“We’ll take an important step this year by working with you to implement a Levels of Care program to assure that the highest risk babies are delivered at hospitals with the facilities to meet both the needs of the mother and the baby,” Holcomb says.
The state currently has the seventh highest infant mortality rate in the country and is worse than any of its neighbors.
Read Governor Holcomb’s speech, as prepared for delivery: