In January 2018, Terry Stigdon came into the role of Director of the Department of Child Services with a mandate to learn from the assessment of DCS which had been ordered by Governor Eric Holcomb. Tasked with leading the agency in the implementation of recommended reforms, one of her first stops was meeting with judges.
Early regular meetings with Wayne County Judge Darrin Dolehanty and Monroe County Judge Steve Galvin helped to build trust and a collaborative spirit between the new director and the leaders of Indiana’s juvenile bench.
Judge Dolehanty explained, “We tried to keep the meetings on a ‘let’s get to know each other’ level and spent very little time discussing business. I think those informal meetings helped foster an overall sense of trust and goodwill.”
Examples of collaboration in her first year on the job include:
- Visits to courts across the state
- Regular meetings with leadership of the Juvenile Justice Improvement Committee and Indiana Council of Juvenile & Family Court Judges
- Assignment of a DCS designee to serve on the Child Welfare Committee of the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative
- Bringing draft legislation to JJIC/ICJFCJ judges for input
- Assigning staff to collaborate with the Indiana Office of Court Services to support and expand Family Recovery Courts across the state
Grant County Judge Dana Kenworthy, chair of the Juvenile Justice Improvement Committee, said, “Director Stigdon has stated that she wants to be entirely transparent and welcomes input of the judiciary. I have found both to be true in my experience with her.”
From her previous career serving high-need children and families at Riley Children’s Hospital, Stigdon intuitively grasped the impact of the various stakeholders on outcomes for vulnerable children. Thanks to the statutory role of the DCS Director as a member of the Commission on Improving the Status of Children, Stigdon was immediately brought into contact with other state leaders.
The Commission meetings are open to the public and showcase the collaborative spirit needed for effective child welfare practice from groups including the courts, DCS, GAL/CASA, mental health and family service providers, schools, communities, and extended families. State leaders welcomed Director Stigdon to the table as all groups continue to work for the best interest of the child.
Profile: Terry J. Stigdon
By Noelle Russell | Deputy Director of Communications, Indiana Department of Child Services
There’s no doubt Terry Stigdon has a heart for children, a trait that’s shaped her career for more than 25 years. It’s a passion that’s served her as a mother, as a nurse and – most recently – as the new director of the Indiana Department of Child Services, a role she assumed in January 2018.
When Stigdon joined the Department of Child Services, she was uniquely qualified to understand the mission ahead. In her near 20-year career working for Riley Hospital for Children, Stigdon spent countless hours serving people in need. That work took her to the pediatric intensive care unit as well as the emergency medicine and trauma center; there, she saw firsthand what can happen in the most serious cases of child neglect and abuse.
The same drive to help those little ones in the hospital has now carried her to lead the state agency entrusted with their protection. As Stigdon nears the one-year anniversary of taking this post, we asked her to speak on the direction the agency’s headed – and how important the courts are to that mission.
“First and foremost, it’s important to recognize the power of working together to achieve positive outcomes for Hoosier families,” Stigdon said. “Collaboration among the courts and state agencies is critical to ensuring those in the child welfare system receive the assistance they need. The first step toward that goal is acknowledging that these entities cannot operate in silos – they need one another,” she added.
On their journey to permanency – whether that’s reunification with loving families or placement with others who can provide a safe and caring home – children will interact with state agencies, area providers and the courts. Each has an important role to play.
“Each of us within the child welfare system only has so much control over specific parts of the process,” she said. “In order to truly affect positive change, we must lean on each other’s strengths.”
That begins with building relationships but has to go further, Stigdon said; yes, even if it means shedding pride to tackle the problems Hoosiers face.
It’s more than lip service; shortly after joining the agency, Stigdon took opportunities to meet with judges. She wanted to hear about the challenges they see in their courtrooms and learn more about how DCS can bolster the courts’ efforts to provide the best care to families who find themselves before the bench.
She was thankful for kind words but also welcomed criticism where it was warranted, asking court representatives to be open and honest in outlining where DCS excels and where its staff can improve. “Everyone comes to the table with an important perspective, and it’s crucial I listen – really listen – to that input,” she said. “We must lock arms in service of Hoosier families.”
She came away from those meetings encouraged – and with a number of goals: to improve DCS’ relationships with courts across the state; to streamline communication between local DCS staff and judges and ensure procedures are consistent across communities; to make the journey to permanency more efficient for children; and to ensure DCS seeks court intervention for the right children at the right time.
“Removing a child can be traumatic, and we must be confident when we ask the courts to support us in that decision,” she said.
Stigdon is the first to admit she’s still learning – and her door is always open, she added.
“The more we understand each person’s role in the child welfare process, the better service we can provide to those who need it most,” she said. “I’m encouraged, knowing I’m surrounded by so many people who want the best for Hoosier families.”