EVANSVILLE, Ind. (CN) – Nine foster children claim in a federal class action that Indiana has failed to protect them from abuse and neglect while placing them in homes and reuniting them with their parents.
Represented by lead attorney Melissa Keyes with Indiana Disability Rights, the children filed their lawsuit Tuesday in Evansville federal court against Republican Governor Eric Holcomb, the Indiana Department of Child Services and its director Terry Stigdon.
The lawsuit begins with a quote from Stigdon’s predecessor, Mary Beth Bonaventura. When she resigned in 2017, she warned that Indiana foster children were at risk “in ways that all but ensure children will die.”
According to the lawsuit, children in the Hoosier State are removed from their homes and placed into foster care at more than double the national average rate.
“While children are in DCS custody, Indiana fails to keep them safe, often placing them in inappropriate, unstable, or overly restrictive placements; fails to provide necessary support services and medical and mental health care; and fails to provide meaningful case management,” the complaint states.
The children, who filed the suit through adult representatives, claim the Indiana foster care system leaves some them in “inappropriate and sometimes abusive institutional settings for long periods of time.” They also say the state has not conducted timely termination proceedings.
The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief for alleged violations of the First, Ninth and 14th Amendments and the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act. It also includes a subclass of disabled children seeking relief under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The children claim they are sometimes forced to stay in emergency shelter care or even to sleep in DCS offices. The proposed class includes at least 22,000 children, more than half of whom have been placed out of their original homes.
The plaintiffs include two girls identified only as Ashley and Betty, sisters ages 4 and 5 who reported that their stepfather had sexually abused them.
“Despite receiving credible reports of sexual abuse, substance abuse, and violence within the home, DCS waited weeks to remove Ashley and Betty from their home and file a child in need of services petition against their mother and stepfather,” the lawsuit states.
Ashley was moved to 17 foster homes, and DCS separated them while changing their plans to adoption, “making it less likely that they will be adopted by the same family,” according to the complaint.
Milo and Thomas, brothers ages 3 and 5, allegedly had a family case manager who had a sexual relationship with their father and would notify him of drug tests in advance.
Logan, 12, has been in the foster care system for a decade and has been in 15 different placements.
“Providers have noted that Logan will likely make little progress in addressing his attachment issues until he is in a permanent placement,” the lawsuit states. “Therapy has also revealed that Logan has received minimal hugging and tactile input through much of his life.”
Sara, 14, says she was removed from her home after reporting that her father had sexually abused her, but DCS later reunited her with her father, who sexually abused her again.
High caseloads are another problem facing the Indiana foster care system, according to the lawsuit.
While new legislation has reduced family case managers’ loads to 13 children in out-of-home placements, a Child Welfare Consulting Group study showed that some carried loads of 25 to 35 children last year. One even had a caseload of 52 children, the complaint states.
Earlier this year, a child advocacy group filed a federal lawsuit in the same Evansville court, claiming that foster children are receiving appointed legal counsel less than 10% of the time in some counties.
In addition to lawyers from Indiana Disability Rights, the foster children are also represented by attorneys with Kirkland & Ellis and A Better Childhood.