INDIANAPOLIS — New legislation expanding what the Indiana Department of Child Services is required to include in their end-of-year child fatality reports moved out of the Senate Child and Family Services Committee by a unanimous vote on Monday.
House Bill 1247, authored by Rep. Ryan Laurer, R-Columbus, would require DCS to include if a deceased child had a prior history with DCS, and the location and status of the child at the time of death. The agency would also have to indicate whether a child had an open case with DCS at the time of their death.
"That's the goal - to increase transparency around these cases. To keep these kids safe, to take them out of situations that are damaging and unsafe for these kids. And to ultimately do all we can, in every situation we can, to prevent these these horrible cases when a child dies," Lauer said.
According to the latest data from the Indiana Department of Child Services, 50 out of 281 child deaths reported in 2020 were the result of maltreatment by a caregiver. Thirteen of those children had prior DCS involvement.
Lauer said if the state had access to more information surrounding those deaths, DCS, along with state and local officials, could work together to better identify risk factors and develop stronger policies to protect Indiana's most vulnerable children.
"By collecting additional information in instances where there is a child fatality, we could help identify more risk factors, intervene sooner and hopefully save lives. We also want to increase public awareness of the risk factors that lead to these tragedies," Lauer said.
The bill is one of several introduced this legislative session, which lawmakers said was directly inspired by the case of Judah Morgan, a 4-year-old who was found dead on the floor of his biological parents' Union Township home in October.
"Absolutely, Judah Morgan was on my mind when I was authoring this bill," Lauer said.
For years, his foster family said they tried to alert DCS that Morgan was being abused at his biological parents' home — but were ignored.
Jenna Hullett is Judah Morgan's second cousin, the first cousin of his father, who now faces a slew of charges, including murder, in connection with the boy's death.
“There were a lot of red flags going on in between the time we got him and when he could vocalize abuse that was going on in the house. Every time he would tell me something, I would tell the case worker, and it was constantly overlooked," she said.
Weeks after Judah's death, Hullett started the Justice for Judah Facebook page. It is a space where she is calling attention to what she says are inefficiencies in our state's foster care system.
"The only thing I can do is try to make sure it doesn't happen to anybody else. I'm tired of hearing about the system failing children and babies. No one should have to bury their child," Hullett told 13News in October.
Hullett believes HB 1247 and Senate Bill 410, which expands rights kinship caregivers have to intervene in court on behalf of children like Judah, could have been instrumental in saving his life.
Ranking Minority Member Senator J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, was one of the first lawmakers to meet with the Hullett family in December, and sponsored HB 1247.
“I filed a similar companion bill to this legislation with SB 64 earlier this session after hearing the case of Judah Morgan from LaPorte County, who was killed just months after being reunited with his parents in 2021," Ford said. "Every child fatality in Indiana is one too many. We need to do more to protect vulnerable children in our state and this legislation is an important step towards doing that.”
HB 1247 now heads back to the Senate for potential amendments.
Hoosiers who suspect a child is being abused or neglected can call the Indiana Department of Child Services' Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 1-800-800-5556. Reports can be made anonymously 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Each month, on average, DCS receives 15,000 hotline calls reporting suspected child abuse or neglect, and estimates that 75% of those reports are investigated for substantiation of the claims.