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Lawsuit filed on behalf of children seeks systemic changes with DCS

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A lawsuit filed on behalf of Hoosier children seeks reforms in the Department of Child Services.

The children say they suffered serious physical and psychological harm while in the state's care. The lawsuit, announced Tuesday, names Gov. Eric Holcomb, DCS Director Terry Stigdon and the Department of Child Services as defendants. The suit alleges the state is aware of problems with DCS but hasn’t done enough to reform the agency.

The class action complaint says the state has failed in its duty to protect the 22,000 children who have open child welfare cases. The suit cites the resignation of former DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura, who stepped down in December 2017, writing in her letter of resignation that Indiana officials were “systematically placing Hoosier children at risk ‘in ways that all but ensure children will die.’”

While Holcomb called for an expert analysis from the Child Welfare Consulting Group (CWG) and made some changes to the system, the lawsuit asserted those changes weren’t enough to fix systemic failures on the part of the state, including:

  • The state’s inability to provide children in its care with stable foster homes
  • Instances in which children are frequently moved from place to place and separated from their siblings and community
  • Failure to meet the needs of foster children with disabilities
  • Heavy reliance on institutionalization, even in cases of relatively minor behavioral problems
  • Lack of services to meet medical, mental health and physical needs
  • Overworked caseworkers with minimal training and too few resources

The nine children named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim DCS:

…failed to provide safe and appropriate foster care placements; failed to provide appropriate services to the children and their families to allow safe reunification; and, for those for whom safe family reunification is not possible, failed to timely pursue termination of parental rights legal proceedings and failed to seek and secure safe, permanent homes. In doing so, Defendants have violated Plaintiffs’ federal constitutional and statutory rights.

Three organizations filed the lawsuit: Indiana Disability Rights, an advocacy group for those with disabilities; A Better Childhood, a national advocacy group for children; and Kirkland & Ellis, a law firm.

Nikki Gray, a staff attorney for Indiana Disability Rights, said all nine children have a diagnosed disability. She claims three are placed in residential institutional settings, including a nursing home.  

The lawsuit claims a 16-year-old boy is living at a nursing home because DCS placed him there. He is diagnosed with autism and cerebral palsy. The complaint says the agency made contact with the boy in 2010 and substantiated allegations that his parents medically neglected him. They entered into an Informal Adjustment agreement with DCS. In 2012, it said the boy's house caught fire because his parents' meth lab exploded. DCS removed him from the home after the explosion. The lawsuit also said he moved to two foster homes and then a nursing facility in 2017. Two years later, he is still there.

"We are most concerned about children being unnecessarily placed in institutions," said Melissa Keyes, a legal director for Indiana Disability Rights. 

The 80-page lawsuit was filed a little more than a year after Stigdon took the job. Gray said they began working on it about 10 months ago.

Last year, a group tasked with doing a full review of Indiana's Department of Child Services (DCS) revealed their findings about the problems plaguing the agency Monday in a 116-page report.

In a status report, the agency said staff turnover and the number of open cases went down since then.

The state's budget signed in April also gave Indiana's DCS millions of more dollars to keep them from overspending.

"This is not a problem you can just throw money at and expect it to fix," said Keyes. "This needs a fundamental change in how services are provided."

Keyes thinks caseworkers are overworked and the state fails to provide kids in its care with stable foster homes. They are requesting a number of changes, including more community based placements and training.

"We want DCS to start taking note of these problems we are noticing and realize they are not one off issues," said Gray.

CBS4 reached out the Department of Child Services about the lawsuit. A spokesperson told us the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

You can read the lawsuit below:

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