Lawsuit against Indiana child protection agency fails to account for recent changes, director says

In this Youtube screenshot, Indiana Department of Child Services Director Terry Stigdon responds Monday via video message to a class action lawsuit filed last week. The suit claims DCS not only is failing to protect Hoosier children at risk, but that the agency's policies and practices often inflict further trauma on an already vulnerable population.

The Department of Child Services director is pushing back on claims in a class-action lawsuit filed last week that her agency not only is failing to protect vulnerable Hoosier children, but is further traumatizing them through inappropriate foster care placements.

In a video message issued Monday, DCS Director Terry Stigdon said the lawsuit, filed on behalf of all Indiana children in legal or physical DCS custody, does not take account of myriad changes at the agency since last year. That's when she succeeded former Lake County Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura as DCS director.

"The timing of this filing is puzzling, considering the significant strides our agency has made since we publicly took responsibility for our shortcomings one year ago," Stigdon said. "Put frankly, DCS is simply not the agency it used to be."

Specifically, Stigdon said DCS in 2018 participated in a top-to-bottom review of its records, staff, policies and procedures by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group that generated 20 recommendations for change, which Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb pledged to implement.

"Those recommendations took aim at some of the system’s biggest challenges — not enough staff, high turnover and insufficient training tailored to the special kind of advocacy work that we do. We have embraced all of the recommendations, even those that significantly changed the way we do business," Stigdon said.

As a result, Stigdon noted, there's a downward trend in the number of children in foster care "as we focus on providing the right care to the right child at the right time," new staff are providing better support to foster families, DCS employees have more manageable caseloads, and higher salaries are helping reduce staff turnover and ensure better outcomes, among other improvements.

"Had the advocacy groups behind this lawsuit approached our agency leadership, we would have shared these successes, including our plans for the months to come," Stigdon said.

"But to my knowledge, no significant effort to reach out with their concerns was ever made. Instead, we are surprised with public allegations that demoralize our employees just as they have begun to feel hopeful about the positive changes we are making."

The lawsuit, filed at the federal court in Evansville by A Better Childhood, Indiana Disability Rights, and Kirkland and Ellis, starts with Bonaventura's claim in her resignation letter that Holcomb's DCS funding and policies "all but ensure children will die."

It alleges, notwithstanding recent reforms, that DCS has violated the civil rights of children in its care by failing to provide appropriate foster care placements, safe family reunification services, timely terminations of parental rights and permanent homes.

Instead, the lawsuit says DCS is causing additional trauma for children already removed from their families, siblings, schools and communities by frequently shuffling them among homes and institutions, as the agency focuses "more on statistics than outcomes."

Stigdon rejected those claims. She said that while the child welfare system is far from perfect, "Indiana is steadfastly moving in the right direction."

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