INDIANAPOLIS - Marion County’s juvenile court system is being overwhelmed with child neglect cases, a spike that is a repercussion of a soaring drug problem among parents.
Judge Marilyn Moores sits behind stacks and stacks of papers on her desk.
"These are all cases that came in – these came in yesterday, these came in today and have motions I need to rule on," she says, pointing to different corners of her office.
The paperwork towers over candy and small toys. Moores oversees the juvenile court in Marion County. She’s very busy these days.
The number of Children in Need of Services cases, known as CHINS, have created the foundation for the stacks of paper on Moores’ desk.
She blames one problem for that increase. "listen
Moores says a thousand more neglect cases came through her court last year. Halfway through this year, the caseload is up another 60 percent. Moores says an increase this big wasn’t on anyone’s radar.
"We sort of feel like we’re in the firefighting business," she said. "We just come in every day and try to put out the fires."
Moores says parents are selling off personal property to buy drugs, sometimes leaving them and their children homeless and hungry. And heroin and prescription pain killers are hard habits to beat.
The increase is putting a strain on the entire juvenile care system, from foster care services on down. Every child who enters the system because their parents are accused of neglect gets a support staff. A child is paired with a Guardian ad litem, who represents the child’s interests through the legal process.
Those Guardian ad litems have a team of volunteers, known as CASA’s to help them meet with children or supervise parental visits. But they’re having a hard time keeping up, too.
The county is required to fund the program. This year’s budget allocated $2 million, but the court estimates the program will cost nearly three times as much. The court estimates the program will cost between $5.6 and $6.1 million before the new year.
"That’s more than bake sale funds if you’re trying to raise it out of nowhere," she said.
That’s sent Moores back to the council to ask for more money. She called the problem a "tsunami" to a June city-county council. And she’s been rallying for more volunteers to fill the CASA ranks. There are now 400 CASAs in the program. But the Child Advocates of Marion County says it has more than a thousand pending cases.
One of the county’s Guardian ad litems is Mark Bass. He’s worked with neglected children for nearly two decades and has seen spikes before.
"Oh yeah, yeah, this is the busiest we’ve been, that I can remember," he said in an interview, waiting for a mediation session to begin.
He says his caseload has never been higher. That means spending less time in the office and less time on each case. "I’ve been around long enough to know that it goes through spikes and you’re stressed at this point in time, but you know at some point it will level back out, hopefully," he said.
Going through the legal process and often being separated from parents at least for a period of time can be traumatic for children. A stretched-thin support staff means one less constant.
"When it all comes down to this, it’s human relationships is what drives helping people heal and move on and take care of things," Moores said.
Getting children back into their parent’s care is always the priority. And Moores says they’d been doing a good job of that. But she predicts her termination rate of just 10 percent will rise as they continue to be overwhelmed with cases.