In one Indiana county, as many as 1 in 4 kids are subject of child neglect investigations
This story was produced as part of a larger project led by Giles Bruce, a participant in the USC Center for Health Journalism's 2018 Data Fellowship.
Other stories in this series include:
Giles Bruce, The Times
TERRE HAUTE — As a public health professor, Jack Turman has done research in some of the poorest sections of Los Angeles and Omaha, Nebraska. But that didn't prepare him for this small city in western Indiana.
"These two neighborhoods are the toughest I've ever worked in for sure," he said.
He was driving around Sarah Scott Middle School, on the west side of Terre Haute, and the nearby Ryves Neighborhood.
The poverty is embedded, the drug use heavy, the opportunity scarce. Kids come to school dirty and hungry. Parents don't see a way out.
Turman, who teaches at Indiana University, had just stopped by the middle school to figure out how to continue a program he helped start there, called Grandma's Cupboard. It's a pantry where students pick up free food, clothing and hygiene supplies; some children shower and put on clean clothes before class. More than 80% of the students at Sarah Scott qualify for free or reduced-fee lunches. The state average is less than 50%.
So Turman wasn't shocked to learn that Vigo County, where Terre Haute is the county seat, had the highest rate of child neglect investigations in the state in 2017 — 238 for every 1,000 kids, a Times analysis of child welfare data found.
"You have all these markers of poverty — food insecurity, substance abuse, a big increase in self-harm and interpersonal violence. When you take all of that together, it's not surprising you're going to see this trickle down to the abuse and neglect of children," he said.
The state as a whole had the third-highest rate of investigations for child abuse and neglect in the nation in 2017, according to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But what's driving those numbers is not physical and sexual abuse — which have both declined in Indiana over the years — but instead an explosion in the number of neglect investigations, The Times review found.
And nowhere do they occur at a higher rate than in Vigo County.
Terre Haute, located on the Illinois border, along the bank of the Wabash River, doesn't outwardly appear to be a stronghold of child mistreatment. It is home to the fifth-largest public university in the state, Indiana State. The downtown isn't full of boarded-up businesses. Even the poor neighborhoods aren't that run down.
That doesn't mean there aren't struggles here. One in 4 Vigo County children lived in poverty in 2017, the fourth-highest rate in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The poverty level then was about $25,000 for a family of four.
"If they're not in poverty, they're one paycheck away from poverty," said Dr. Jim Turner, medical director of the Richard G. Lugar Center for Rural Health at Terre Haute's Union Hospital.
Terre Haute is a victim of the same economic forces plaguing many formerly manufacturing-heavy cities in the Midwest: deindustrialization, a brain drain of high-school graduates seeking wealthier pastures.
Joni Wise, administrator of the Vigo County Health Department, said she'd like to see the community reinvent itself economically like some other smaller Midwest cities such as Bloomington, Indiana and Des Moines, Iowa, did years ago: maybe leverage Indiana State University, though it's largely a commuter school nowadays, with many first-generation students from Northwest Indiana and the South Side of Chicago.
She noted that the state as a whole doesn't spend money on prevention. Indiana was 48th in the nation for public health funding in 2018, according to rankings by the United Health Foundation.
"We don't invest in public health and education like we should," Wise said.
She described a house she was once called out to to condemn. DCS was on the way. As she got there, the police pulled up, responding to a domestic disturbance.
"It's right after the polar vortex," she recalled.
"There isn't a furnace in the house. There's five children in the house, who are teenagers down to elementary. There's no heat in the house, except for space heaters in one room, dogs in the house, holes in the house, where you can see cats jumping in and out of windows. The back porch was nothing but trash.
"Very low-functioning mother with good intentions. The center room of the house that they utilized just had a blanket hanging in the door to keep the heat in, with space heaters, no beds, no couches, just two beds, no blankets, no sheets, a small TV. That was their world.
"And I think, how can you get up each day and go to school, and function, if you're in such a dysfunctional environment? There's animal feces, human feces. The water hadn't been running. But that's normal for those children."
Despite the high neglect investigation rate in Vigo County — it grew more than 300% from 2008 to 2017, The Times review found — DCS substantiated neglect in only 15.8% of those cases.
This mirrors the Indiana-wide trend of DCS investigating more cases of neglect — a 137% spike in the 10-year period — but not substantiating them at an increased percentage (the state average is 16.8%).