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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — Abused, traumatized, medically misdiagnosed, probably trafficked and forced to carry their meager belongings from one foster home to another, sometimes in as short as one day.

That’s just some of what 10 children in Indiana’s foster care system experienced, a recently filed class action lawsuit claims.

And those are the very real dangers facing all of Indiana’s foster children – 11,500 of them right now – due to not only the caretakers in the system but the state’s Department of Child Services, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court of Northern Indiana earlier this month, names DCS, its director and Governor Eric Holcomb as defendants.

At least half of the 10 children named under pseudonyms in the suit are from Allen County.

DCS responds

WANE 15 reached out last week to both the Allen County DCS office and Indiana DCS Director Eric Miller, who was appointed by Holcomb. DCS spokesman Brian Heinemann responded Friday.

“We do not have an agency statement at this time. Thank you for reaching out,” Heinemann wrote in an email.

WANE 15 also contacted the organizations which filed the lawsuit – South Bank Legal in South Bend, New York City-based A Better Childhood, and attorneys from Kirkland Ellis, a prominent law firm in New York City. One of the Kirkland Ellis attorneys said A Better Childhood will speak on behalf of the suit.

Gov. Eric Holcomb, who appointed the current DCS director, is named in the suit.

The three defendants have 21 days from the Aug. 16 filing to respond to a summons issued by the U.S. District Northern Indiana, where most of the plaintiff children are located.

Their responses are to be directed to South Bank and the court or there will be “judgment by default entered against you for the relief demanded in the complaint,” the summons reads.

Overseeing this case is federal judge Damon R. Leichty, the same judge overseeing the human rights case against the Allen County Commissioners and the Allen County Sheriff for inhumane conditions at the Allen County Jail.

Children ‘languish’ in the foster care system

Similar to the jail lawsuit, allegations in the suit against DCS include poor conditions provided to the children and lack of proper staffing of caseworkers and personnel.

However, they go beyond that to say children “languish” in the system because of the state’s indifference to their plight.

“The very system that was designed to protect foster children often compounds their trauma and causes lifelong harm,” the suit reads. Failures include:

–keeping children in foster care safe

–recruiting and retaining an adequate number of caseworkers

–providing timely and appropriate medical treatment

At least 5 of the child plaintiffs included in a federal lawsuit against the Department of Child Services are from Allen County.

— implementing measures necessary to ensure permanency in a reasonable amount of time (permanency means a placement)

–implementing measures to ensure placement stability

–maintaining and updating medical records or providing full and accurate medical information to foster parents; and,

–placing children with disabilities in family-like homes rather than institutions

The 66-page lawsuit includes the stories of these young people, most of whom have spent years of their lives in foster care.

Trauma for teen goes back at least seven years

The case of a 15-year-old girl, identified under the pseudonym “Kimberly F.” in the lawsuit, is telling. The home county wasn’t identified but she is likely from Allen County because her “next friend,” a foster parent, is the same one for two other Allen County children included in the lawsuit.

At 8, she was raped and molested by her stepfather who is now in prison for his offenses, the suit says. Her mother was accused of neglect and illegal drug use. Compounding her trauma, she was then molested by her mother’s boyfriend, according to the lawsuit.

She was placed with her grandmother, who is not licensed as a foster parent, nor is she today, although Kimberly is back in her care, the suit said.

Up the stairs to the local DCS office in Fort Wayne

The grandmother was denied a license “due to safety concerns,” because “DCS also knew that the grandmother was selling pain medication to friends for money to buy gas and food,” according to the lawsuit. At this time, DCS “had no record of a signed safety plan to mitigate safety concerns.”

The young girl’s CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) was terminated, but DCS never told the grandmother and there was no follow-up on protocol until a new CASA was assigned, the lawsuit claims.

The CASA had made “several unsuccessful attempts” to inform DCS that the maternal uncle living in the home had been charged with sexual misconduct. Beyond worried, the terminated caseworker called the Indiana Hotline to inform them of this danger, according to claims in the suit.

Trauma continued when the grandmother’s neighbor sexually abused Kimberly while the grandmother accepted food and other goods from him. Kimberly was now 12 years old, but DCS did not remove her or her sister from the home, according to the lawsuit.

Instead, DCS came up with a “safety plan,” that prohibited contact between the 12-year-old girl and the neighbor. Just after that safety plan was introduced, the grandmother sent Kimberly to have an unsupervised dinner with the neighbor, leading to beliefs that the girl was being trafficked in exchange for food and money, the report stated.

DCS did report suspicions about the neighbor who was arrested on charges of felony child molestation and child solicitation. He pleaded guilty and is now in prison for his crimes.

In the six months that followed, Kimberly received no therapy, nor was she psychologically evaluated, according to the lawsuit. When she was finally connected to a therapist, “DCS knew that more intensive therapy was required to address Kimberly’s severe trauma.”

Her therapists changed at least three times, forcing her to retell the trauma she endured. She developed an eating disorder and had frequent panic attacks as her mental health continued to deteriorate, the report stated.

As a result, there were “placement disruptions,” and she was eventually separated from her little sister, which added to her trauma.

DCS told the grandmother suspicions about her neighbor, the suit claims, but arranged for supervised visits and provided “sex offender awareness” to the grandmother, “teaching her how to navigate the sex offender webpage and set boundaries between the girls (including the little sister) and adult men.”

DCS then removed Kimberly and her little sister from the grandmother’s home and put them in a temporary foster home for a week before moving them to a licensed foster parent.

However, DCS didn’t tell the foster parent about Kimberly’s “serious behavioral issues” or “that Kimberly had threatened to light a house on fire at a previous placement,” the report said.

The foster parent accepted the girls and Kimberly was sent off with a Ziploc bag of various medications that included psychotropic rugs and sleeping pills. But some bottles contained only enough doses for two to three days.

The foster parent did not receive a “medical passport” that would have shed light on Kimberly’s medical history, diagnoses or treatment and nothing about the girls’ medical care providers. The caseworker told the foster parent to take Kimberly to a pediatrician for medication management or monitoring, but the pediatrician balked at the type and volume of medications prescribed.

Kimberly went to Riley Children’s Hospital in Indiana where her medication and progress were monitored.

But Kimberly threatened suicide and was violent with other children in the home. She pushed her foster parent down the stairs, according to the report.

In order to protect her biological children and Kimberly’s little sister, the foster parent asked DCS to remove Kimberly from the home, which the agency did.  DCS put Kimberly back with her grandmother because the agency couldn’t find a licensed foster parent to take her.

If DCS had acted correctly, “DCS may have prevented years of additional trauma Kimberly has suffered and continues to suffer,” the report stated.

Another case made headlines and was the impetus for “Judah’s law,” after a stepfather killed a 4-year-old boy. The boy had been returned to his home with his mother and stepfather for a trial home visit. Both adults are in prison now.  “Miles,” as the boy in the lawsuit is called, was the murdered boy’s brother, and witnessed his brother’s death when he was six years old, the lawsuit states.

Caseload more than double for caseworkers leading to burn-out

“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 report states.

Caseworker burnout is high, the lawsuit claims, due to the handling up to 35 cases or more at one time rather than the recommended 12 to 15 cases or just eight cases if the child is in treatment foster care.

Statistics cited indicate that DCS lost more than 1,000 family case managers in 2021 and took on 628 for a net loss of 390. In 2022, DCS lost 941 family case managers and gained 602, for a net loss of 339, “compounding the previous year’s losses.”

Furthermore, caseworkers are so burdened with duties that they falsify documents attempting to cover up for a lack of face-to-face visits and other requirements, the lawsuit claims.

The U.S. Office of the Inspector General criticized medical recordkeeping and in a letter, the DCS director made claims that he knew the medical recordkeeping was inadequate and said the state was developing a “robust monitoring system” called I-KIDS, but has yet to complete the project.

‘Climate of fear’ for foster parents and therapists

One of the more sensational lawsuit claims is that DCS views foster parent advocacy as adversarial.

“DCS commonly retaliates against foster parents by removing or threatening to remove foster children, by substantiating or threatening to substantiate allegations of abuse and/or neglect against them and by rescinding or threatening to rescind foster care licenses,” the report states.

Under these conditions, foster parents quit.

Over the past 24 months, 1,791 foster families voluntarily withdrew their licenses for various reasons. Between March 2021 and March 2022, DCS lost nearly 500 licensed foster homes. Because of understaffing, the licensure process can take up to a year.

The DCS also has an ombudsman bureau that is supposed to “receive, investigate and resolve complaints against the agency,” however it is only an arm of the DCS and is not independent.

Retaliation extends to service providers or therapists who, if they don’t provide a recommendation in line with DCS, are commonly terminated, leading to a “climate of fear that erodes the entire services ecosystem.”

Without attracting the right therapists, children are misdiagnosed or “may receive anger management or coping skills therapy instead of treatment for complex trauma,” in some instances.

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Mary Beth Bonaventura

The lawsuit cites an ominous resignation letter written by former DCS director Mary Beth Bonaventura who wrote to Holcomb warning that more children would die as a result of putting Miller in charge of the DCS operation.

The letter caused a sensation in state circles, but the lawsuit claims that her warnings have come true, the report suggests.

The summons asked for in 21 days from Aug. 16 would place the responses sometime around Sept. 6.