Indiana Slams Lawsuit Against Child Welfare Agency as Ambush, Unnecessary

Indiana DCS Director Terry Stigdon (left) with Gov. Eric Holcomb. Photo: Indiana Public Media

Last week, Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) officials told Youth Services Insider that it did not plan to comment on the class-action lawsuit filed against it. But it must not have loved what was being said by the other side, because DCS Director Terry Stigdon took to YouTube today with some sharp remarks for the groups involved in the lawsuit.

Stigdon accused nonprofit litigator A Better Childhood (ABC), law firm Kirkland and Ellis, and the advocacy group Indiana Disability Rights – the three entities that brought the lawsuit U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Evansville Division – of ambushing the state.

“Had the advocacy groups behind this lawsuit approached our leadership we would have shared our successes, including our plans for the months to come. But to my knowledge, no significant effort to reach out with their concerns was ever made,” Stigdon said. “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.”

A Better Childhood said in response to Stigdon’s video that it has been investigating Indiana for eight months, and that DCS has been aware of the possibility of litigation.

“A lawyer from the state reached out to us several months before we filed the lawsuit, but given the state’s general lack of responsiveness, we believed that oversight of the federal court was necessary,” said ABC Executive Director Marcia Robinson Lowry, in an e-mail to YSI. “However, we are more than willing to talk to the state at this point, and we welcome the opportunity to do so.”

Ashley W. v. Holcomb, which was filed last week, was brought on behalf of nine plaintiffs, and seeks to use their varied experiences in care to represent a broader class of all kids in DCS’s care. One girl, identified as Sara, was reunified with a sexually abusive father who then abused her again. The agency pushed for two brothers, Jaidyn and James, to be moved from a stable foster home to an aunt who had never met them or visited them in care.

Other youths in the case landed in institutional care, saddled with mental health challenges that ABC alleges were exacerbated by frequent cycling through foster care placements. Logan, now a teen, has been in a private secure facility since October of 2018. Another teen, Desmond, who at 9 was rescued after his parents’ meth lab exploded, ended up in the adult wing of a nursing facility.

Stigdon did not discuss any specifics regarding the nine children, but did suggest that she believes that cases are not indicative of systemic failure.

“It is easy to cherry pick our most challenging cases to support a narrative suggesting this is every child’s experience, when in reality, the average number of homes a foster child lives in while in DCS care, is two,” Stigdon said.

Stigdon joined DCS in late 2017, just after its former child welfare director, Mary Beth Bonaventura, resigned abruptly in protest.

“I feel I am unable to protect children because of the position taken by your staff to cut funding and services to children in the midst of the opioid crisis,” Bonaventura said, in a letter that was ultimately obtained by the Indianapolis Star. “I choose to resign, rather than be complicit in decreasing the safety, permanency and well-being of children who have nowhere else to turn.”

Stigdon pointed to indicators of progress at DCS, shared later with YSI by DCS via infographic, during her first year on the job. Staff turnover dropped 18 percent between 2017 and 2018, she said, and re-entries into foster care within 12 months have gone from 10 percent in 2016 down to 5 percent in 2018.

Lowry said that while the governor “has announced some changes,” the state has not made progress on the issues brought up in the litigation.

“Our lawsuit is based on up-to-date data and information, to the extent that it exists.” Lowry said. “We know that children today are still suffering from placements in overly restrictive institutions, are living in foster homes where they don’t receive necessary services, and are being returned to parents without sufficient planning and services.”

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.