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Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2001 /16 Shevat, 5761

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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They didn't even know how to find the children -- PLYMOUTH, Ind. | "It turned out that we did not know where the children were. I'm glad that someone had enough confidence in [the Chicago Tribune] to call and ask for help -- because the fact is, our people in Marshall County had no idea how to find the children they were allegedly protecting."

The man speaking those words -- James Hmurovich, the state director of the Indiana Division of Family and Children -- was referring to three children in rural Marshall County, Ind. Hmurovich was explaining why he has removed the director of his Marshall County division, Stephen Neff.

Neff was removed, Hmurovich said, after state investigators concluded that the Marshall County office, under Neff's supervision, had suffered "total breakdown." Hmurovich said the failures in the office were "so significant and so severe" that "I would not be willing to say that children were safe in Marshall County."

After a schoolteacher in Marshall County, who said she had firsthand knowledge of three children who were showing signs of severe abuse, contacted us looking for help, we put her in contact with Hmurovich. The teacher told Hmurovich's investigators that the Marshall County office had repeatedly been contacted about the 5-year-old boy, 3-year-old girl and 1 1/2-year-old boy -- but seemed to be doing nothing to protect them. The older boy, she said, had been burned on his face and hands with lighted cigarettes; the girl had had her arm dislocated by a man in her home; the younger boy had been severely bruised from apparent beatings.

When Hmurovich sent state investigators to Marshall County to examine the children, he said, Neff's workers gave them the address of the house where the workers said the children were living. . . .

And they weren't. The children who purportedly were being protected by Marshall County workers, Hmurovich said, did not live where the workers thought they did. Only when the Indiana schoolteacher who had contacted the Tribune was asked by child-protection workers did they learn where the children -- children they were supposed to be diligently looking after -- really were.

"The children were unsafe, and we did not know it. We didn't do our job," Hmurovich said. The ensuing investigation of the Marshall County office resulted in the dismissal of Neff. Indiana officials have offered Neff another government job unrelated to child protection. Neff declined our request for an interview; his attorney said that Neff is suing the State of Indiana, asking to be reinstated as county director.

But this was not the first time the Marshall County department was found to be unaware of vital facts about a child entrusted to it. Last year, when Joseph Grad -- who was serving a 4 1/2-year prison term for the torture of his 6-year-old son -- was about to be released three years early, no one from the Marshall County department informed the foster family with whom the boy was living. In fact, the Marshall County office gave the family an incorrect, later release date, and said the boy would be safe.

The boy and his family had to learn of Grad's early release date from us -- from a call from a newspaper in Illinois. The failure of the Marshall County office, under Neff, to know when the child's torturer was scheduled to get out was "unacceptable," Hmurovich said at the time. Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon thanked the Tribune for calling the boy and his foster family with the information that Marshall County officials did not know and had failed to provide.

Todd Pate -- the deputy sheriff in Kentucky who had alerted Indiana authorities about the torture of the boy, only to see Neff's office fail to remove the child from his torturers -- said at the time of Grad's planned early release: "I hate to second-guess what anyone does; I seldom do. But the social services people in Marshall County did as poor a job on this case as anyone could possibly do. . . . It's pitiful. I'm troubled that [the department] in Marshall County would still be allowed to be involved in the case. I do not trust them."

At the last minute -- as Joseph Grad was about to walk out of prison, with the stated intention of re-establishing contact with the child he had caged in wire, had chained in a tiny closet for 24 hours at a time, and had urinated upon -- authorities in Starke County, Ind., filed five felony charges against Grad for a separate crime. Grad was rearrested and remained behind bars; the boy was told he could rest easy.

But Grad is now out of jail. He's walking free. We will report on that Monday.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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