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Northwest Indiana judge to head state child welfare agency

A longtime juvenile court judge in Northwest Indiana will lead the state’s embattled child welfare agency.

Mary Beth Bonaventura has been the senior judge for the juvenile court system in Lake County, Indiana for the last 20 years.

She’s developed a reputation for being tough but fair, often presiding over cases involving teens facing charges for murder, drug offenses and sex crimes.

But soon, Bonaventura will step down to head Indiana’s Department of Child Services.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence announced the change yesterday.

“Judge Bonaventura is uniquely qualified to lead the state's Department of Child Services and help to protect Hoosier children from abuse and neglect," Pence stated in a written statement.

Indiana’s DCS been criticized for acting too slow to prevent child abuse or child deaths.

Indiana lawmakers have been trying to develop ways to improve the system. In Pence’s state of the state address last week, he says he will allocate an additional $35 million a year to the IDCS to help better investigate child abuse cases.

The department has been scrutinized over child-abuse deaths in recent years, including the case of Christian Choate of Northwest Indiana. The 13-year-old Choate had been abused and kept in a cage by his own parents which lead to his death but he wasn’t found until two years after his death.

His body was buried in a shallow grave in a mobile home park in Gary, Indiana in May 2011. His father, 40-year-old Riley Choate, was sentenced this month to 80 years in prison for his son’s death.

They boy’s step-mother, Kimberly Kubina, is scheduled to be sentenced in February for her connection to the case. Indiana State Rep. Linda Lawson, a Democrat from Hammond, lauds Bonaventura’s appointment.

“It is one of the best things that can happen to kids in the state of Indiana,” Lawson, a former Hammond police detective, said Wednesday. “She has got the right idea of what needs to happen. She is willing to take on parents. She’s willing to take on the system. She’s willing to take on attorneys, law enforcement. If it’s not right for kids. She really cares.”

In announcing the appointment, Pence said Lake County’s Juvenile Court system is one of the toughest ones in the state of Indiana.

In 2008, former Gov. Mitch Daniels appointed Bonaventura as a member of the Indiana Commission on Disproportionality in Youth Services.

In 2009, she was named Chair of the Civil Rights of Children Committee for the Indiana State Bar Association and the former Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Randall T. Shepard appointed Bonaventura as Chair of the Child Welfare Improvement Committee.

"She is a strong leader who has an impeccable reputation of integrity and compassion for children,” Pence added.

A native of East Chicago, Bonaventura is a life-long Lake County resident. She received her undergraduate degree from Marian University in Indianapolis and her law degree from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

In 2008, the Indiana Supreme Court allowed a documentary firm to video tape proceedings in Bonaventura’s courtroom. Previously, the Supreme Court had never allowed cameras in the courtroom. The result was a mini-reality series for MTV called “Juvies.”

MSNBC also airs a reality series featuring Bonaventura’s court called “Lake County Lockup.”

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