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NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Transparency needed in federal class action lawsuit against DCS

After lawyers for Indiana’s Department of Child Services and Gov. Eric Holcomb attempted to have records sealed in a federal class action lawsuit against the agency, we have to ask why.

The lawsuit accuses the child welfare agency of inadequately protecting thousands of children under its care. Attorneys for Holcomb and DCS Director Terry Stigdon said in a brief on Aug. 23 that sealing the documents would protect the children in the case.

But in another brief filed on Sept. 6, two child advocacy groups, A Better Childhood and Indiana Disability Rights and the international law firm Kirkland & Ellis, questioned whose privacy the state’s brief is seeking to protect. The plaintiffs in the case point out pseudonyms for the children are already being used, and they contend sealing documents amounts to hiding information from the public.

The lawsuit filed in June lists nine children, under pseudonyms, as plaintiffs. Included were two toddler sisters, allegedly left with their mother and stepfather for weeks in spite of reports to the DCS in 2016 they were being sexually abused, exposed to drugs and living in unsafe conditions.

The complaint contends the girls wound up in an emergency shelter for nearly two months, even though that was against DCS policy, and details delays in seeking therapy, failed attempts to place them with their father and additional foster home placements that didn’t last.

Court records quoted in a recent Journal Gazette news report say, “Plaintiffs have never contended that access to the children’s individually identifiable information, such as their names, addresses, or birthdates, are in the public interest. However, the details of plaintiffs’ allegations, and the children’s stories as they relate to structural deficiencies in Indiana’s child welfare agencies, are most certainly in the public interest.”

News-Sentinel.com agrees. We believe the DCS needs as much transparency as possible as long as the identities of children are not compromised.

The lawsuit against the DCS, its director and the governor was filed in June, alleging agency conditions violate the rights of the 22,000 Hoosier children with open cases. The lawsuit says the DCS hasn’t done enough to correct many long-documented and highly publicized issues. It focuses on high caseworker turnover, alleges the state has inadequately responded to child abuse and contends the agency has unnecessarily placed children in institutions.

News reports have stated Indiana received federal audits three times since 2002. The most recent in 2016 found the state was only adequate in one of the seven key areas it evaluates.

As a result, Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned as DCS director in 2017. She wrote to Gov. Holcomb, according to The Indianapolis Star, that the state’s child welfare system was operating “in ways that all but ensure children will die.”

Some improvements have been made at DCS as shown in the numbers from January 2018 to May 2019: staff turnover declined by 18 percent, the ratio of case manager to cases dropped from a little over 1:7 to just over 1:5 and out-of-home placements fell to 14 percent.

But the June lawsuit complains the state is more concerned with improving statistics than fixing the attitude and policy problems.

Melissa Keyes, legal director of Indiana Disability Rights, told the Indianapolis Star in June the purpose of the lawsuit is to secure court oversight to ensure real change in DCS.

“The ideal goal is we fundamentally address problems,” she said. “We’re looking at changes to policy, practice — fundamental shifts in policy and how DCS is run as a whole.”

In the Journal Gazette report Sept. 10, Marcia Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, said that while the law makes actual court records private, information derived from the documents is public.

“We think it’s important to tell the children’s stories — what happened to them, what kind of harm they went through,” Lowry said. “We think the state is taking way too broad a position.”

We concur. Protecting children’s identities is paramount, but it is also important to make public the problems in our child care system.

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