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Wednesday, April 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Indiana Court Reinstates Case Against Child Agency

INDIANAPOLIS (CN) — The Indiana Court of Appeals revived state Department of Child Services caseworkers' claims that the agency is understaffed, to the detriment of Hoosier State kids.

In a July 2015 lawsuit, caseworkers alleged DCS ignores Indiana state law by overloading caseworkers to the point that the safety and welfare of the children they served could be endangered.

Lead plaintiff Mary Price, representing a class of Indiana DCS caseworkers, said in the complaint that her caseload at the time was about 43 children, although by Indiana law it should never exceed 17.

The lawsuit also claimed Price and other DCS caseworkers regularly worked more than 40 hours per week to keep up with their caseloads and maintain minimum standards of service.

Earlier this year, a trial court in Marion County, Ind., found in favor of DCS' contention that the claims of Price and the other caseworkers could be satisfied through the Indiana civil service complaint procedure.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which represents the caseworkers, appealed the trial court's dismissal.

On Tuesday, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court.

"We agree with Price that the matter before us concerns a systemic deficiency which is not unique to her but is experienced by hundreds of case workers in Indiana," Judge Patricia Riley wrote for the majority.

Riley later added, "The systemic challenge brought by Price falls outside the boundaries of this administrative appeals procedure and must be addressed by the judicial system."

According to the ruling, the caseload maximums defined by state law "are not an aspirational goal but are a clear and definite number to attain."

"Accordingly, as [the law] imposes a clear, absolute, and imperative duty on DCS to comply with maximum caseload standards ... no administrative remedy is available to address this systemic violation of Indiana law," Riley wrote.

Judge James Kirsch dissented in part, saying that the trial court was "correct in concluding that the appellant had an adequate remedy under the Indiana Civil Service Complaint procedure which she has failed to exhaust."

The ACLU of Indiana called Tuesday's decision a "victory" for DCS caseworkers.

"The vital societal importance of the services provided by DCS case managers cannot be overestimated," Ken Falk, ACLU of Indiana legal director, said in a statement. "I am happy that we will be given the opportunity to demonstrate to the trial court that the caseload standards that are essential for the case managers to perform their jobs are not being met."

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