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Over 30 years of child welfare and the hardest part is still about making connections

This story is part of a continuing series of Hometown Heroes. CACSEI is highlighting the work of regional child protection workers, advocates, law enforcement, and allies in our work against child abuse.

Talk to anyone who works for the betterment of children and you’ll eventually hear the phrase “improving outcomes” and “community partners.”  In casual conversation, it might slip past your ears without much thought. But inside the Department of Child Services “improving outcomes” has become less a mission or vision and more of a crusade.

Gary Keith has been ably working for the State of Indiana in one agency or another across southeast Indiana for 34 years. Jovial, intellectually curious, and without a hint of jaded skepticism, Keith has been advocating for better policies, better outcomes, better everything for kids for decades. He currently works as the Local Director for Jefferson County’s DCS office.

Keith’s role involves a lot of collaborative meetings and events. That could be meeting with a judge, a prosecutor, school superintendents or principals. These happen monthly, and as staff and officials shift, so can the goals and tasks before them. 

“I hate to say they’re challenges, but it is always a challenge to bring together various community partners on initiatives to benefit children and families,” says Keith. His obvious optimism is not deterred by the complexity of what’s at stake. 

“The ever-changing nature of this role is to communicate and collaborate with our community and partners. Because if we don’t, there’s a lot of misconceptions of the role of DCS,” says Keith.

Keith originally went to school for education, a skill set that has handily prepared him for addressing misconceptions and reaching new people. “I thought I wanted to teach,” he recalls. But a job opening as a caseworker at what was then called the Switzerland County Welfare Office changed his path. He’s been in public service ever since. 

“And a typical day has to include putting out fires you didn’t plan for,” says Keith. Like any manager, that includes everything from writing reports, corresponding with other managers around the region, analyzing data, and deciding who gets next Friday off. “Sometimes I feel like an air traffic controller and a cheerleader. I’m looking at all these parts and keeping people moving toward a common outcome.”

That outcome is clear for him and everyone in the office: “Each day is about keeping everyone working toward our mission to protect children from abuse or neglect,” he says.

DCS’s outcomes are measured like any enterprise: the time it takes to respond to requests or questions, the success or failure of new initiatives and programs, or the pace at which projects are moving. For instance, DCS works toward guardianship within eighteen months, or reunification with parents in a year. An adoption process from start to finish should be no more than two years.

Maintaining good relationships with community partners, like CACSEI, helps ensure they and others meet those needs of children and families. “Working with CACSEI is an example of a collaborative relationship. The multi-disciplinary team is essential ensuring we’re working together and not re-traumatizing children while preserving the integrity of cases,” says Keith. 

“I did interviews before the CAC existed,” recalls Keith, “And I’d like to think I did a good job. But I know as an agency others weren’t. CACSEI provides consistency in our whole region about how kids are being treated during forensic interviews.”

As “improving outcomes” go, alongside phrases like “community partners”, the phrases might sound esoteric or possibly an overly complicated way of saying “doing good work with people”. But it’s much more than that because people move, shift, and change. The crusade to protect kids never waivers, but taking the time to keep people together does. “The challenges of this job are stepping outside the day-to-day crises and trying to link what we do together. It’s my job to take the time to do that,” says Keith.

CAC of Southeastern Indiana

CAC of Southeastern Indiana