The children she has loved and lost look down from her living room wall.
That’s where Kristy Evans tapes each of their pictures, so they’re still with her after they’ve been torn away, often without warning.
She couldn’t have kids of her own, so she became a foster parent to adopt. In four years, she’s mothered 14 children in her home in Mitchell, Indiana. She’s walked into hospitals with empty car seats and walked out with newborns trembling from heroin withdrawal. She’s cradled an infant who came to her with ribs broken from abuse. She’s soothed babies who couldn’t stop screaming long enough to eat.
Evans, 46, learned to live at the mercy of Indiana's Department of Child Services, her days dictated by the march of court dates and home visits and paperwork. But in the past few years, Evans has watched the agency come undone amid an unprecedented flood of cases.
A year ago, she and her husband filed to adopt two toothy little girls. But the process dragged. Caseworkers and attorneys came and quit faster than she could keep up. Her texts and emails often went unanswered. And all the while the calls kept coming, with voices on the other end asking if she had room for another baby.
Evans believes in grace and making the best of things. She tries to empathize with tired caseworkers and lost biological parents and overwhelmed judges. But sometimes it’s too much.
“There’s days,” she said, “where I want to go outside and just scream.”
For years, DCS has struggled, plagued by high turnover, scarce funding and a barrage of lawsuits from employees and foster parents.
Then the opioid crisis swept the state.
Indiana has become a place where church signs offer deliverance not just from evil but from addiction. Where police stations and hospitals keep running out of medications that fight overdoses. Where parents shoot heroin in their cars, slumping against the wheel while their toddlers wail in the backseat.
The stranglehold of opioids has yet to loosen. Nearly 22,700 kids were in Indiana's foster care system as of March, according to a DCS report. That’s more than twice the national average. In the midst of a crippling foster parent shortage, the agency is at a loss. Children with nowhere to go sleep in DCS offices. Foster homes are filled well past limits outlined by the state. Yet somehow, many foster parents wait with empty beds.
DCS and the governor’s office exchange blows and blame, both denying their role in the agency’s unraveling.
In December, longtime DCS director Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned, claiming cuts and policies from the governor’s office kept her from leading effectively. In her resignation letter, Bonaventura warned continued cutbacks would “all but ensure children will die.”
Her warning was late — it was already happening. In August 2017, a 2-month-old died of malnutrition, hours after four DCS employees visited her home. A concerned foster parent had called the Marion County DCS hotline with concerns about the baby’s safety three times.
When the news broke, Kara Cook was overcome with a familiar sense of outrage. Months earlier, a 1-year-old boy she’d cared for went limp and lifeless after riding with a DCS contractor. He died nine days later. The child's biological parents are suing the driver and contractor, alleging the boy died because he'd been strapped into his car seat incorrectly.
Cook, 32, had shown the employee how to safely install the car seat, but something went wrong.
“The bottom buckles weren’t buckled, and the way the car seat was placed just left him to hang,” Cook said.
Now she keeps molds of the toddler’s handprints on a shelf in her house. The hospital staff made them for her before they took him off life support.
“It’s a miracle there haven’t been more deaths like this,” Cook said.
Bleary-eyed foster parents trickled into Monroe County's DCS office in the early hours of a humid fall Saturday. They’d left their partners with the kids or wrangled babysitters so they could be here, at one of many training courses required to stay licensed as foster parents.
Kristy Evans and her husband, Greg, sat together and flipped through the pages of the workbook on their desk while crunching on ice from McDonald’s.
At the front of the room, the foster parent trainer sat on a desk and kicked his feet back and forth. Behind him was a whiteboard on which he’d written his name and the course title, “Darren Wilkinson: Self-Care.” Wilkinson, a former caseworker and foster parent, had just a few hours to teach these parents how to help themselves, so they could keep helping Indiana's children.
Over and over, Wilkinson spoke of “Planet Chaos,” his term for the unstable environments foster children are forged in, where they acquire survival skills and scars. In these homes, neglected toddlers learn to take care of infants. Frequent brushes with police teach children to hide at the sound of sirens.
Evans and other foster parents live on "Planet Normal", Wilkinson said. But when foster kids first arrive, often carrying their whole lives in garbage bags, Planet Chaos follows. It’s embedded in their instincts, resurfacing as they shuffle between new lives and old ones. Meanwhile, the foster parents, tasked with loving and caring for these children, are left straddling the two worlds.
Through tears and hushed voices, tales of chaos tumbled out. One woman said police rescued her foster children from a dope house, where they were stabbing syringes into a Doc McStuffins doll. Another woman said her foster kids’ strung-out parents forgot to feed them, so they’d run down the street naked, begging for food. One man said his infant foster daughter’s addicted mom overfed her baby so much, the child returned from a home visit with her body swollen, skin taut like a sausage casing.
Wilkinson, 53, walked them through ways to avoid burnout and manage their second-hand trauma. But as the class continued, many parents raged, not about exhausting days or dealings with difficult children and biological parents, but about DCS.
They lamented the lack of support and the paltry compensation. They fumed about the organization’s focus on reuniting children with their biological families, a policy they believe puts parental rights over children’s stability and safety. They complained about overburdened caseworkers who often seemed unprepared and out of reach.
“The caseworkers we’ve had don’t care. It’s just a paycheck to them,” a furious foster mother said.
Wilkinson didn’t shy away from the parents’ grievances about the system.
“When you ask your case manager for services for your kids, do you get it?”
The woman snorted.
“And how does that make you feel,” he asked.
The foster parents nodded and exchanged knowing glances. They swapped stories about suffering from caseworkers' mistakes. One woman said her caseworker fired her foster daughter’s therapist, and the girl regressed to how she’d been to when they first got her — withdrawn and emotionless. A couple said their caseworker blacklisted them after a disagreement, even though DCS emailed them almost daily about the desperate need for foster parents in their county.
Wilkinson saw the anger in the foster parent’s faces. He asked if the mounting frustrations made them want to turn their backs on the system.
“I can’t imagine giving up on any of them kids,” Evans said. Her husband clutched her hand before he spoke.
“If you walk away, you aren’t thinking about all the other kids that need you.”
Even before the opioid crisis, DCS was crumbling.
In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union sued DCS and Bonaventura on behalf of an Indianapolis family case manager, Mary Price, and all other DCS family case managers. The lawsuit alleged Price and other DCS employees were handling caseloads vastly bigger than state standards.
State law says family case managers can only be tasked with 17 ongoing cases or 12 initial assessments at once. At the time of the lawsuit, Price was handling 43 cases. Price’s lawyers argued that her caseload, as well as other family case managers’, had been this high for years, and that despite frequent claims from DCS about hiring enough new employees to comply with state standards, nothing was changing.
“Ultimately, it is the children of Indiana who suffer because of the caseloads,” the lawsuit stated.
The case ended up in front of the Indiana Supreme Court, and in August 2017, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the agency’s favor. In its decision, the court said it couldn’t force DCS to comply with the law because, while the law outlines the limits for caseloads, it does not outline the actions DCS must take to maintain them.
"Granting relief here risks entangling the judiciary in the Department’s day-to-day affairs — what would likely be a time-consuming intrusion beyond our institutional competence to discharge," the decision read.
DCS is divided into 19 regions throughout Indiana. In an evaluation of the 2016 fiscal year, only one region was keeping caseloads within state standards.
When Bonaventura resigned in December, she said children would suffer from the agency’s staffing problems, but pointed to the governor’s office. In her resignation letter, she said the state abruptly cancelled a much-needed technological update to the 30-year-old computer system that manages child support payments. She said efforts to cap staffing of caseworkers and child welfare attorneys were endangering children and families. She blamed the government for the fraying relationship between DCS and care providers — child placement agencies, residential treatment facilities and foster parents.
“I feel I am unable to protect children because of the position taken by your staff to cut funding and services to children in the midst of the opioid crisis," Bonaventura wrote.
Gov. Eric Holcomb said the state is “taking appropriate steps” to help the agency and pointed to its $450 million budget increase. Holcomb hired an outside group to evaluate DCS performance and efficiency. A March update from the investigation hinted at major troubles in the agency: understaffing, lack of training and power-sharing struggles.
After the resignation, foster parents panicked and raged. The concerns they’d had for years were public knowledge now, but there were no signs of change. A movement had been growing, in homes and Facebook groups, to get themselves a voice. With DCS in the midst of another shakeup, it seemed more crucial than ever.
Getting that voice, many thought, might begin with a bill soon to be introduced to the legislature, that would grant them their own bill of rights.
Ernie Shearer, 64, sat in his Suburban in the parking lot of his antique store, fumbling through his wife’s purse for a bottle as a baby wailed in the back seat.
“I know, I know, you want your ba-ba,” he said soothingly, reaching toward the car seat behind him to put the bottle in his 10-month-old granddaughter’s outstretched hands.
Two and a half years ago, he had just retired after years of running an antiques and estate sale business in Indianapolis. He and his wife Laura were looking at properties in Florida and Alabama.
They’d be snowbirds, they thought, or maybe nomads who drifted around the country in an R.V. Then, with a single phone call, the future he had planned evaporated. DCS told him his youngest grandchild had been born addicted to opioids. If he and his wife didn’t take the baby and their two other grandchildren, they’d go into the system.
He and his wife followed instructions for DCS licensing within four months. Without it, they couldn't get the compensation foster parents are given to help raise children. Months dragged past and the agency failed to license them, while their savings dwindled to nothing.
“I was mad as hell,” Shearer said.
He learned firsthand how DCS can be blind to people who care for relatives. The agency knows they won’t abandon their kin, Shearer said, so it takes its time with processes that offer them vital support. His rage grew as time passed. He and Laura had missed out on thousands of dollars to help raise the kids. He wondered how much worse off other unlicensed foster parents might be, who had no assets and retirement savings but still step up to help.
After more than a year of foster parenting, Shearer and his wife were surprised by yet another phone call, informing them they had a fourth grandchild who had also been born addicted to opioids. They took the baby and filed adoption paperwork to officially become parents again, though they were both in their 60s.
The couple wasn’t licensed by DCS until November 2017 — two and a half years after they took in their grandkids. By then, they'd missed out on more than $60,000 of compensation. Shearer’s anger was overwhelming. He couldn’t understand how the system had grown so deaf to foster parents it depended on.
He needed an outlet. He needed to look the powerful people in the eye and make them understand the cost of their carelessness. So when he heard about the proposed foster parent bill of rights, Shearer knew he’d found his chance.
On a Thursday morning in January, a handful of desperate foster moms stood in the Statehouse, waiting for the doors of the Senate chambers to swing open.
They weren’t there to give testimonies. They had just come to fill seats and and show their faces, to remind legislators they were more than dollars in a tight budget or faceless statistics or casualties of a government catfight.
The foster moms took their seats high in the Senate gallery, a collection of fiddling hands and tapping feet. Kara Cook looked down on the senate floor, where senators were sipping from styrofoam cups and shuffling papers.
Since the 1-year-old she fostered died in his car seat in June, Cook’s rage had driven her to DCS offices, foster parent groups and now to the Statehouse. She was telling her story to anyone who would listen. Often, she brought photos of the boy— grinning and giggling in some, draped in tubes in a too-big hospital bed in others.
Down on the floor, Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, stood and began introducing S.B. 233.
“This bill would require DCS to work in collaboration to create a statement describing the rights of foster parents,” Ford said.
He explained numerous states already had similar legislation. Many foster parents didn’t know their rights, Ford said, but this bill could inform them and serve as a contract with DCS. But as senators questioned Ford about the bill, he was vague about its powers.
No, Ford said, it wouldn’t provide any consequences for DCS if it didn't respect these rights. It wouldn’t outline a course of legal action for foster parents to fight back if they felt these rights were violated.
It would, Ford kept repeating, “bring everyone to the table” and “bridge gaps” and “open communication.”
As Ford spoke, Cook wondered whether the bill could bring real protection for foster parents. They needed something to guarantee resources, access to information and real support from DCS, not just a symbolic measure that would leave them fending for themselves.
When Kristi Cundiff took her place at the lectern, the foster moms straightened in their seats. Here was the de facto leader of their movement — CEO of Indiana Foster and Adoptive Parents, the state’s biggest foster parent group with more than 7,000 members.
Her voice raspy from a cold, Cundiff rattled off the support her organization offers to struggling foster parents. In past months, they’d helped a foster family get bikes for their children for Christmas. They’d hosted family picnics, bought diapers for a foster mother who couldn’t afford them and set up multiple clothing closets.
Just as her group works to partner with families, Cundiff said, it wants to work with DCS. The bill can’t erase the problems of the past, but it could help get foster parents and DCS on the same page.
Each time a child dies in DCS care, Cundiff said her inbox is flooded with messages from foster parents who are sure these deaths are preventable.
“I can tell you I sit in front of my computer and cry.”
Cook nodded along as Cundiff spoke. She hoped the senators were paying attention. Her foster son had only been out of her home in Indianapolis 12 days when he died. Months later, she was still finding his toys tucked in corners and under couches.
Before he began his testimony, Ernie Shearer straightened his glasses and cleared his throat. He told the senators how his life had been upended by that first phone call from DCS, and how nothing could have prepared him for what followed.
“Now, I don’t know if any of you has ever held a baby," Shearer said, pausing to steady his trembling voice. “Who is going through the withdrawals.”
He cleared his throat again and clutched the lectern.
“If you haven’t, you need to get off your butt and get to a hospital and volunteer because it will completely change your opinion about the opioid issue in Indiana.”
Shearer explained how he and his wife had followed DCS’ every order and still been left to fend for themselves.
“DCS should have had us licensed in December 2015," Shearer said. "But they know we’re not going to turn our backs on our grandchildren, and they exploit that."
The system doesn’t value foster parents enough, Shearer said. It keeps them silent in the back rows of the courtroom while a judge makes decisions about the children they’ve raised. It values the desires of biological parents, who see their children every so often, over the foster parents who wake up with them in the middle of the night.
Shearer spoke of the death of Cook's foster son, reminding the senators of the cost of DCS' carelessness.
“Foster parents are ignored every day when it comes to their children.”
As he spoke, some of the foster parents sobbed and looked at Cook. Someone reached out and put an arm around her. But she kept her eyes fixed on the senate floor.
After the senate moved on to the next bill, Cundiff stood alone in front of a TV camera in an airy Statehouse hallway. She’d walked through the week before, passing out paper angels bearing the initials of foster children and the number of years they’d spent stuck in the system.
The camera’s red light blinked on and the broadcaster told Cundiff to introduce herself. But her voice was drowned by shouts as a group of pro-life protesters approached.
“Abortion is murder,” shrieked a man in scrubs covered in fake blood. He dangled a bloody baby doll at his side.
A woman in a wheelchair rolled beside him, brandishing gruesome photographs.
“We are dehumanizing children,” she shouted as she moved toward the camera. Annoyed, the broadcaster stopped his interview and waited for them to pass. But the protesters parked in front of the camera and shouted abortion statistics.
Off to the side, the foster parents whispered among themselves, debating about whether to intervene. When the protesters refused to move, Shearer decided to approach.
Shearer kept his voice level as he tried to empathize. He understood their anger, he said, but there was a time and a place. Did they realize they were silencing the people who took in the babies they were trying to protect?
The protesters had no interest Shearer’s words. They howled about demons and hell and dead children.
“Don’t tell me about demons, Shearer shouted, “I’m with the church!”
As the argument escalated, the TV crew waited and fiddled with equipment. Cundiff stood silent, with a look of practiced patience.
The foster parents had come so far to make themselves heard. But again, no one was listening.
The next few months brought inklings of progress. The first small battle was won in April, when a handful of foster parents — including Ernie Shearer and Kara Cook — stood behind Gov. Holcomb as he signed S.B. 233, officially binding DCS to collaborate with foster parents in designing a bill of rights. Shearer’s 10-month-old granddaughter tugged on Holcomb's tie during the signing.
Afterward, the new DCS director, Terry Stigdon lingered outside the governor’s office to talk for nearly an hour. A former pediatric nurse and clinical director at Riley Hospital for Children, Stigon promised the foster parents change was coming.
“The walls are down,” Stigdon said.
She told stories of her days in the hospital, when nurses would flag her down as she walked the halls and point her to rooms with babies to hold. She described her experiences touring DCS offices around the state and said many employees seemed fearful. She didn’t say of what, only that she hoped the fear would fade.
As she spoke, Stigdon cradled Cook’s new foster baby in her arms. “I’m your Aunt Terry,” she joked. As she turned him around to pass him back to Cook, the baby burbled and spit up on her crisp navy suit.
Cook tried to apologize, but Stigdon wouldn’t hear it.
“It’s just clothes,” Stigdon said. “They’ll wash.”
Cook was struck by her ease. So many people were grossed out by babies they weren’t obligated to love, but Stigdon seemed genuine and unruffled.
If change was coming, Cook knew it would not be quick. The system was still flooded with cases. Foster parents like her were still struggling to get what they deserved. More children like the one she’d lost would slip through the cracks. Some would probably die.
But as she watched the director laugh and brush herself off, she felt hopeful.
Here was someone who wouldn’t run from a mess.
ABOUT THE STORY: This story is based on eight months of reporting throughout southern Indiana. The reporters attended foster parent training sessions and senate meetings at the Statehouse, spoke with numerous foster parents and reviewed scores of court documents and DCS reports.