A class action federal lawsuit filed Tuesday claims the Indiana Department of Child Services 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.
Nine children currently under DCS authority are plaintiffs in the case that seeks to encompass as a class the more than 22,000 children in legal or physical custody of DCS, including the thousands of children with emotional, psychological, cognitive or physical disabilities.
The suit alleges, notwithstanding recent reforms enacted by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Republican-controlled General Assembly, that DCS has violated the children's civil rights by failing to provide appropriate foster care placements; safe family reunification services; timely terminations of parental rights; and safe, permanent homes.
"The way that Indiana is treating these vulnerable children is both unconstitutional and inhumane," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, a national nonprofit advocacy organization that uses courts to improve child welfare systems.
Specifically, the lawsuit claims DCS is failing to place the abused or neglected children in its care into stable, nurturing, family-like homes; instead putting kids into a strained foster care network based more on what's available than what home is most suitable.
DCS also frequently moves children among homes and institutions, causing trauma for children already removed from their families, siblings, schools and communities, the lawsuit says.
In addition, the filing alleges that the medical, mental health and physical needs of many children, particularly those with disabilities, remain unmet due to infrequent assessments and inadequate resources, leading to greater use of institutionalization, even for children with minor behavioral problems.
"Children come in to the care of DCS having already experienced trauma. The failure of DCS to protect these kids from further harm is unconscionable, especially when much of that harm is due to DCS' own failings," said Melissa Keyes, legal director at Indiana Disability Rights.
The remedies requested by the lawsuit include a court order requiring the state to bring DCS operations in line with national standards for child protection agencies and the appointment of a neutral monitor to oversee DCS compliance.
Neither Holcomb, who is named as a defendant, nor Republican Attorney General Curtis Hill Jr., who represents Indiana in lawsuits against the state, responded to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Though Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said he's not surprised by the filing.
"The conditions and experiences these kids have faced are disheartening, disappointing and just plain wrong," Lanane said. "This might just be the wake-up call Republican leadership needed to assure we make major changes for the protection of our state's children."