Make your home page

9 foster children worried for safety, well-being sue Indiana, Child Services

9 children file lawsuit against governor, DCS director

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WISH) — A group of nine foster children has filed a class action lawsuit claiming the Indiana Department of Child Services and its director are failing to provide them reasonable care and keep them safe.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in a federal district court in South Bend. The children, listed by the first names and last initials in their complaint, say the civil rights action is “on behalf of all children who are now, or will be, in the custody” of Child Services.

An allegation in the lawsuit says, “The data reveals a foster care system in crisis: foster children in Indiana remain in state custody for too long, move through far more placements than the national standard, re-enter the foster care system at higher rates, are returned home when their homes are unsafe, and experience maltreatment in care at rates that exceed national standards.”

The lawsuit adds that Child Services threatens the safety and well-being of children by not providing stable, permanent homes. Issues cited by the children that need to be changed include:

  • A failure to recruit and retain an adequate amount of caseworkers.
  • The termination of parental rights’ practices that leaves children in limbo and delays permanency.
  • “Trial home visit” practices that expose foster children to a serious risk of harm.
  • Failure to maintain and update medical records for foster children.
  • Failure to provide full and accurate medical information to foster and adoptive parents.

The suit also says the children need to be protected from the actions of Child Services Director Eric Miller. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb appointed Miller to begin leading the agency in May.

Miller took over after the former director, Terry Stigdon, announced she was leaving May 5 to become chief executive officer of the Indiana region of the American Red Cross. Stigdon took the reins of Child Services in January 2018 after the resignation of Mary Beth Bonaventura on Dec. 27, 2017.

The lawsuit says, “In her resignation letter to Governor Eric Holcomb, former DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura warned that then-Chief of Staff, Eric Miller, was ‘the greatest threat to this agency and child welfare.’ Bonaventura explained: ‘I have effectively been stripped of the power to run DCS for the past 11 months. Staff from your office chose a chief of staff with no child welfare experience who had been ‘an asset during the campaign.’ The current chief of staff has engineered the hiring of his choices, driven out career professionals, engaged in bullying subordinates, created a hostile work environment, exposed the agency to lawsuits, overridden my decisions, been brazenly insubordinate, and made cost cutting decisions without my knowledge or regard for the consequences … (he) is bent on slashing our budget in ways that all but ensure children will die. Any attempts I have made to rein him in on non budgetary issues have likewise not been supported; I am truly the DCS director in name only. The current chief of staff, with the position and authority he has been given by your office, is the greatest threat to this agency and child welfare.”

In the class action complaint, each foster child has a “next friend,” a person who appears in court on behalf of a child but is not part of the proceedings. A “next friend” is considered to be an agent of the court whose role it is to protect the rights of the foster children.

News 8 reached out about 4:16 p.m. Thursday by email to the governor, the Child Services director and the agency’s chief information officer for comment on the lawsuit. No response was immediately received.

Miller on Wednesday posted a YouTube video talking about the reorganization of the Child Services leadership and changes made to the agency in his first three months as its leader.

Lawyers based in South Bend, New York City and Chicago filed the lawsuit on behalf of the children. New York-based national advocacy group A Better Childhood is part of the lawsuit.

The advocacy group in 2019 sued Indiana and accused the state of failing to protect 22,000 foster children with open child welfare cases. The lawsuit filed June 25, 2019, by Indiana Disability Rights, A Better Childhood and a New York-based law firm alleged that the state’s foster children have suffered serious physical and psychological harm while in state care. A federal appeals court in Illinois dismissed that case, saying that the foster children could sue in state courts for remedies to their issues.

Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director A Better Childhood, told News 8 on Thursday afternoon by phone that this week’s class action complaint involves children who could not find remedies in state court.