The Journal Gazette
Thursday, May 14, 2020 1:00 am

Judge: Child welfare suit against state can proceed

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – A federal judge ruled against the state Wednesday, allowing most of a lawsuit alleging the Indiana Department of Child Services has failed to protect thousands of children in its care to proceed.

The lawsuit was filed in July by two advocacy groups and an international law firm on behalf of several foster children, including two brothers in Allen County. Among its allegations: The agency removes too many children from their homes, often places them in inappropriate settings and allows them to “unnecessarily languish in foster care.”

The agency protects about 20,000 children who have been abused or neglected by their parents – with a large amount in out-of-home care.

Judge Richard Young of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana dismissed one of the three counts related to adoption case plans and reviews. But he is allowing two other counts to go forward – the plaintiffs' right to be free from harm under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment and their right to familial association under the First, Ninth and 14th amendments.

“Federal courts have a duty to decide cases before them. Sometimes they refrain from exercising jurisdiction when doing so would interfere with ongoing state proceedings or would upset state-court judgments. But those exceptions are just that: exceptions,” Young wrote. “Federal courts cannot refuse to entertain cases, even when the subject matter involves parallel state-court proceedings. This case tests the limits.”

The proposed class action concerns Indiana's child welfare system and its purported shortcomings.

The case can now move to the discovery phase and possibly trial if a settlement is not reached.

Young found the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged the state failed to protect them from dangerous foster care placements; failed to provide the children appropriate services to allow for family reunification; failed to timely pursue termination of parental rights; and failed to seek safe and secure homes.

In one example, the plaintiffs contend DCS often places children in need of services in homes with other youth on probation – creating a potentially harmful environment.

The suit also says DCS over-relies on emergency shelter care and will often keep children there much longer than the 20-day period required by law.

The agency didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the past, DCS Director Terry Stigdon has pointed to big improvements since its former director resigned and a third-party consultant was brought in to the analyze the agency.

The agency has hired more caseworkers, raised pay, reduced workloads and empowered decision-making at the local level.

Three organizations brought the suit on behalf of the children: A Better Childhood, a national advocacy group for children; Indiana Disability Rights, an organization that protects and promotes the rights of individuals with disabilities through empowerment and advocacy; and Kirkland & Ellis, a global law firm.

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