A lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of nine Indiana foster children claims the Indiana Department of Child Services doesn’t protect 22,000 children with open child welfare cases, including more than 14,000 in out-of-home care.
The federal lawsuit filed in Evansville seeks class-action status and was brought by a group called Indiana Disability Rights, the national advocacy group A Better Childhood and the law firm Kirkland & Ellis. It claims the nine named plaintiffs have suffered serious physical and psychological harm while in state care.
“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 suit said.
“Many of these children unnecessarily languish in foster care for years before they are reunified with their primary caretakers, are adopted, or age out of the system. The delays caused by DCS inflict further emotional trauma,” it said.
The suit seeks to “stop the ongoing violations of children’s constitutional rights and rights under federal law, transform the state’s child welfare system, and ensure DCS fulfills its legal responsibility for vulnerable foster children in Indiana’s child welfare system.”
Melissa Keyes, legal director of Indiana Disability Rights, said children come into DCS care 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’s own failings. That children with disabilities are being kept in overly restrictive institutional settings, that they are not being provided with adequate community-based services has certainly contributed to the developmental trauma these kids are experiencing,” Keyes said.
Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned as director of the agency in 2017, writing to Gov. Eric Holcomb that the state’s system was operating “in ways that all but ensure children will die.”
The plaintiffs include Ashley W. and Betty W., 4- and 3-year-old sisters who have cycled through more than 15 foster care homes over 2½ years, including two episodes in emergency shelter care.
DCS spokeswoman Noelle Russell declined to comment on the lawsuit.