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 Indiana House Passes New ISSCH Legislation

February 25, 2009 - The Indiana House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed passed legislation Tuesday afternoon to halt plans to close the Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors' Children's Home.

House Bill 1722 passed the House on its third and final vote by an 81-17 margin. While the 17 dissenting votes were all cast by Republicans, 29 of the House’s 48 Republicans voted for the bill.

Last Wednesday, HB 1722 passed out of the Family, Children and Human Affairs Committee by a 9-2 vote, and on Monday, the full House approved amendments to the bill on second reading. With yesterday’s passage of the bill on third reading, the legislation now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate to go through the process all over again.

HB 1722, authored by Rep. Scott Reske (D-Dist. 37), would take oversight of the Home away from the Indiana State Department of Health and give it to a newly established 10-member board. It would also change the name of the Home to Morton Residence Academy, with the school being operated with "an age appropriate military structure" on a year-round schedule.

Speaking during last week's committee hearing, Reske called the ISDH's plans to close the Home, announced in early January, "a blessing in disguise." He said lawmakers were to blame for not keeping legislation governing the Home's administration updated.

"The Home was created legislatively," Reske said in his closing remarks before the committee. "I feel very strongly that is should be the legislature to close it." Reske told the committee that HB 1722 will make the Home economically self-sufficient. He said optimal student enrollment will be set at 500 students within five years, greatly reducing the per student cost, which the ISDH says is about $91,000 a year.

Three other state representatives, Bob Cherry (R-Dist. 53), Tom Saunders (R-Dist. 54) and Bob Barnes (D-Dist. 89), also spoke in favor of the legislation at last week's hearing. The day after the hearing, all three were added as co-authors of the bill.

"The Home and school works," Cherry said during his testimony. "It just needs more students."

Saunders told the committee that he thinks the ISDH's decision to close the Home is "all about money." Criticizing the page-and-half summary that culminated the ISDH's three-year study of the Home, he said, "We can make a lot things look bad on paper."

Paul Wilkinson, the Home's superintendent for the past seven years, testified that the Home is "a diamond in the rough" and is "very much underutilized." He said his only wish that they had more students, which would bring the per student costs down.

Asked by a committee member why enrollment is so low, Wilkinson said that Home itself, being so focused on helping the children it has, was not doing a good job of getting the word out. He said the Home doesn't have a public relations person to promote it, but that the alumni association has agreed to help with that task.

Wilkinson said the Home has space for more students and took issue with the ISDH's claim that it would cost at least $65 million to keep the Home open and operating. While he agreed that the state had neglected the Home for at least the last 20 years, Wilkinson said a much smaller amount would be needed to improve and maintain the buildings that are now in use.

Sen. Jean Leising (R-Dist. 42) told the committee that the Home is in better shape now than it was when she previously served in the Senate in the 1990s. She also said she thought the Home is "terribly underutilized" and asked, "How in the world did we get down to 114 students when we have so many kids lost in the foster system?"

"I would really like to see this House and the Senate work out some resolution of this issue with the governor," Leising said. "... I just don't think we should let a good thing go."

Parent Sherri Williams told the committee that the Home had really helped a daughter of hers who is now a senior at the Home's Morton Memorial School. Before coming to the Home, she said her daughter had been at-risk of not graduating because she didn't have enough credits. Now, she said her daughter is on track not only to graduate on-time, but also plans to attend college.

Three current students of the Home's Morton Memorial School also testified before the committee. One, who said he had once thought he would not live to be 18 years old, said the Home had allowed him to "accomplish more than (he) ever thought he would." Another of the students credited the Home with helping her bring her grades up and giving her more self confidence, saying she would likely not be graduating if not for the Home.

The committee also heard from Richard Feldman, the former state health commissioner under Gov. Frank O'Bannon. Feldman said he really believes in the Home's mission and in it's potential, saying it has the makings of something unique. "Some traditions should not die, and this is one," Feldman said.

Two members of the Home Alumni Association addressed the committee. Bryan Harris, co-valedictorian of the class of 79, credited his personal success to his years at the Home. 1973 graduate and Alumni Association President Diana (Holden) Bossingham told the committee that alumni are prepared to start a "speakers bureau" to help promote the Home around the state.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Judith Monroe and James Payne, director of Department of Children Services, both spoke in opposition to the bill. Monroe cited the low enrollment, high cost per student, low test scores and the expense of needed repairs as justifications for the her decision to close the Home. She also said there has been a move toward serving children through community-based services instead of an institutional setting like the Home.

Asked if DCS could place more children at the Home, Payne told the committee that he thought most of the children served by DCS have higher needs and would not be eligible for placement there. He said he thought the cost of running the Home would increase if children with they accepted some of the DCS's higher needs children.

The budget bill the House passed last week included funding for the Home for 2009. Specific amounts were $9,100,938 for personal services, and $1,322,500 for other operating expenses.


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