INDIANAPOLIS — Republican Gov. Mike Pence turned to the top judge of one toughest juvenile court systems in the state to lead the troubled Indiana Department of Child Services, naming Lake County's Mary Beth Bonaventura to direct the agency Wednesday.
The East Chicago native, appointed the senior judge of Lake Superior Court's Juvenile Division by former Gov. Evan Bayh in 1993, has been a leader in statewide efforts to improve the lives of children, chairing the Civil Rights of Children Committee for the Indiana State Bar Association and the Child Welfare Improvement Committee of the Indiana courts.
"She is a strong leader who has an impeccable reputation of integrity and compassion for children," Pence said.
She'll take over an agency roiled by news investigations into the agency's handling of abuse and neglect cases after several children died in troubled homes that had been reported to it. Lawmakers and children's advocates have blamed a centralized reporting hotline for "screening out" calls that should have been investigated. The agency also has had high turnover among its case workers.
Bonaventura said she had seen problems with high turnover within the agency from her time as a county judge.
"The stress level those people go through is enormous, so the turnover is not a surprise," she said. "We just have to figure out, 'How do we support the case managers that we have and keep the really great ones?' "
Pence said he agreed with the need to stem the turnover situation and pointed to money included in his administration's budget proposal for hiring dozens more county-level case workers and staffers for the hotline center.
A top Democratic lawmaker from Lake County praised the selection of Bonaventura, saying she "has seen it all."
"She's open minded, but she can be as hard as nails," said Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond. "She can hold your feet to the fire, whether it's law enforcement or parents. She's willing to do whatever it takes to make things right for kids. ... We can all work with her."
Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said Bonaventura "will be leading the charge on one of the most crucial and sensitive issues in our state."
"It is imperative for the Department of Child Services to have a fresh viewpoint in overseeing the agency," Bosma said.
Former Director John Payne, a former Marion County judge, resigned in September amid questions over whether he violated his agency's code of conduct through his involvement in a child neglect case involving his grandchildren.
Pence said interim director John Ryan would work with Bonaventura during a transition period.
State Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said Bonaventura's career as a probation officer, deputy prosecutor and magistrate in the Lake County juvenile court reflects a "lifetime commitment to children, as well as her devotion to raising awareness about juvenile delinquency and its impact on Hoosier families."
"No one in this state understands the intricacies of child welfare better than Judge Bonaventura, making her the perfect choice to lead DCS," Long said.