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Mother’s suit alleging DCS caseworker abuses proceeds

December 1, 2016

An Indiana Department of Child Services case manager who allegedly pursued meritless child-abuse allegations against an Indianapolis mother must face a federal civil lawsuit, though her DCS supervisors will not, a judge has ruled.

The suit alleges DCS family case manager Nola Hunt conducted an illegal warrantless search, threatened to take the mother’s two children from her, and made false claims against her.

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt this week ruled that Hunt must face Fourth Amendment and due process claims brought by Indianapolis veterinarian Beth Breitweiser. Pratt also dismissed complaints against DCS, director Mary Beth Bonaventura and another of Hunt’s supervisors.

Pratt adopted a magistrate’s report from earlier this month that found claims against Hunt should not be dismissed. According to Breitweiser’s complaint, she and her two children were temporarily living in an apartment in the basement of her clinic while the family home was being renovated. After receiving a report of suspected child abuse or neglect, Hunt and another DCS worker came to the office, refused to identify themselves, and demanded to interrogate Breitweiser, according to the record.

Breitweiser feared for her safety and left with her children, according to the complaint. Hunt later searched the clinic and apartment and took photos without permission or a warrant, the suit says. Hunt is accused of later going to the family’s primary home where she posted a notice that said “Your child(ren) have been taken into custody,” and that court proceedings had been initiated. Neither was true.

A short time later, DCS opened children in need of services proceedings that involved home inspections and interviews, but no evidence of abuse or neglect was found. Neverthless, Breitweiser claims DCS continued to insist she relinquish custody of her children and continued to press its CHINS case despite a lack of evidence.

About a month after the CHINS case opened, Hunt admitted in a deposition at least part of her report was inaccurate and false, according to the record.

Still, DCS continued to press its CHINS petition until the day before a scheduled evidentiary hearing in the matter, after which Breitweiser filed a tort claim notice with the state. Two months later, DCS filed  a substantiation against her, placing her on the Child Protection Index. Another month later, after Breitweiser petitioned for administrative review, DCS reversed itself and the charges against Breitweiser were unsubstantiated.

Pratt adopted Magistrate Mark Dinsmore’s report and recommendation that Hunt “was required to have a court order before searching a private residence — at least absent the availability of some exception to the  Fourth Amendment warrant requirement,” and she was not entitled to qualified immunity as the state argued.

Likewise, Breitweiser’s due process claim against Hunt survives. Her complaint must be believed at this stage of the litigation, Dinsmore wrote, and the suit claims “at a minimum, Defendants knew in the immediate aftermath of receiving the report of abuse that the allegations contained therein were wholly meritless.”

That the alleged threats came after Hunt’s initial investigation “makes the alleged conduct even more egregious because the threats followed an investigation that made the baselessness of the child abuse allegations crystal clear,” Dinsmore wrote.  

The case is Beth Breitweiser v. Indiana Department of Child Services, et al., 1:15-cv-1687.
 

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