(GOSHEN) - As a juvenile court judge for 14 years in Lafayette, now-Indiana Supreme Court Justice Loretta Rush once held court in a parent's living room.
Because it had been a "messy house case, I said, 'We're going to have court in your house next month,'" Rush told a packed crowd of social workers, law enforcement officers and others in the local child-protection system Wednesday. "And I said, 'And I want a healthy snack while we're there,' because they didn't eat real well, either.'"
Rush described the impromptu living-room court session -- complete with sticky couch and iffy food offerings -- as a way of encouraging those in the system to be involved with local parents and children.
"But, it's always good to show up," the justice said once the laughter died down and the discussion returned to the serious statistics of how Indiana's children are doing. "Use any opportunity you have to talk to people and the kids you're dealing with."
Rush was among a full slate of speakers for the sixth annual Community Summit on Children, organized by Elkhart County Juvenile Magistrate Deborah Domine and her staff, drawing participants from surrounding counties. It is financed by a grant from an Indiana Supreme Court committee, the South Bend Tribune reported.
Rush, who chairs Indiana's newly formed Commission for Improving the Status of Children, delivered a quick rundown of sobering statistics that included:
-- The No. 1 unmet mental health need in Indiana is for children.
-- Suicide is the No. 2 cause of death among teenagers. "We all recognize at the state level this is a pressing need," she said. "Are we doing enough? No."
-- Indiana is fifth highest in the nation for children abusing prescription drugs.
-- The state ranks third in the country for infant mortality.
-- Fewer than 3 percent of abused or neglected children go to college.
-- The biggest cause of child neglect in our country is a parent's substance abuse.
As a juvenile judge and now on the state Supreme Court for the last 18 months, Rush says not a day passes without a sexual molestation case crossing her desk. (Her youngest victim, she says, was a 10-year-old fourth-grader who turned up pregnant. "Mom's boyfriend was the father.")
The children's commission will soon address the effect of violence on children, Rush said. The commission, which began its work last summer, also will address such issues as foster care system reforms, child fatalities and data sharing across state agencies.
"We want to right the ship in Indiana," she said. "We can do better."
Department of Children's Services Director Mary Beth Bonaventura, who took over her agency about a year ago, echoed a similar theme, speaking excitedly about new initiatives.
Among those, the former Lake County juvenile court judge identified "permanency roundtables," which for the last year have brought together problem solvers to tackle the toughest cases, often children who might have lingered in facilities for some time and have no family to return to.
"When we bring all these heads together ... usually we do find something else to do" for these children, she said of the 573 cases for whom they've used the program since it began as a pilot in May 2011. "We're really talking about legal permanency."
Indiana is garnering some national attention for its "collaborative care" plan to extend foster care to youth beyond the usual age of 18 to the age of 20, Bonaventura said.
The voluntary program offers federal support if the young person is in school, working, or in a plan to prepare for those things.
It can be a continuation of wardship or a re-entry, she said. Even if it's not a live-in relationship, the program can offer an adult to spend holidays with or for other needs.
"The whole point is to foster interdependence," Bonaventura said, "which is what we would do in our own families. We give our own kids a little bit of leeway, but you're still there, and that's what we're trying to do for the kids who are in foster care."
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