Indiana Enacts Law to Allow State Child Services to Investigate More Abuse Claims at Youth Centers

Amid ongoing concerns about abuse at Indiana’s residential youth centers, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law on Wednesday a measure intended to increase scrutiny of care and curb abuse.

The new law authorizes the Indiana Department of Child Services to investigate claims of abuse at residential facilities involving youth ages 18 to 21. DCS previously screened out such complaints without investigating.

The legislation is a response to an IndyStar-ProPublica investigation that uncovered more than two dozen allegations of sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior by employees at Pierceton Woods Academy, a northern Indiana residential treatment center for boys with substance use disorders and sexually harmful behaviors.

In a story published in November, the news organizations found that DCS failed to investigate some of the allegations. In at least one case, records indicated DCS declined to look into claims against a staffer because the alleged victim had turned 18 and was no longer considered a child. The accused staffer went on to sexually abuse a different resident two years later during a walk near the facility’s soccer field, according to a subsequent DCS investigation.

DCS also found that Pierceton Woods knew about sexual abuse claims but did not report them to the state’s child abuse hotline. Indiana’s mandatory reporting law requires suspected abuse to be reported to DCS or law enforcement immediately.

In another story published this month, IndyStar found similar problems at Wernle Youth & Family Treatment Center in Richmond. State records show the facility failed to report allegations of physical or sexual abuse on multiple occasions, including after a 21-year-old counselor engaged in a sexual act with a 14-year-old resident behind a trash receptacle in 2019.

Such revelations stirred concern among lawmakers, especially because Pierceton Woods’ parent organization, Lasting Change Inc., lobbied last year for legislation that would have given residential treatment centers immunity from the most common civil lawsuits filed by abuse victims. Lawmakers were poised to grant the request, but they scrapped the proposal at the last minute after an IndyStar story detailing abuse allegations at Pierceton Woods.

Rep. Victoria Garcia Wilburn, a Democrat, worked across the aisle to get the new provision amended into a bill sponsored by two Republicans, Sen. Greg Walker and Rep. Chris Judy. The bill also codifies qualifications for case managers and others who work in residential facilities.

In a statement, Garcia Wilburn called the measure “an important step forward in empowering residential care facility employees to report suspected abuse, especially as more accounts of abuse at residential facilities have come to light.”

“The children who reside at residential care facilities often have experienced sexual abuse prior to their time at the facility, and it horrifies and saddens me that anyone would take advantage of a child in such a vulnerable state,” she said. “I believe that this will make progress in ensuring that all children at residential care facilities are kept safe and treated with the care, concern and respect they deserve.”

Her statement credited investigative reporting for prompting the legislation.

“The law always comes before any facility ‘policy,’ and we’ve made this crystal clear for employees and administrators alike,” she said. “This code clarification has been a year in the making ever since the Indianapolis Star published an investigation about several employees’ abuse of residents at Pierceton Woods Academy.”

Pierceton Woods, a faith-based nonprofit whose CEO, Tim Smith, is running for Congress, has previously denied failing to protect minors from sexual abuse. In an email on Thursday, company spokesperson Curtis Smith, who is not related to Tim Smith, said, “The reason we supported this bill from the beginning is that we serve, support, and treat all our residents with unconditional respect, and always have.”

Neither DCS nor the governor’s office immediately responded to messages seeking comment.

Garcia Wilburn and other lawmakers say there is still more work to do.

Several related proposals failed to advance during this year’s legislative session, including a measure from Rep. Becky Cash that would have increased criminal penalties for failing to report abuse.

“My hope is that we can get a much larger piece of legislation to protect children and young adults in residential facilities next year,” Cash, a Republican, said. “I am also committed to getting legislation regarding abuses in youth sports and failure to report those abuses passed. We have a lot of work to do to protect children.”