Can parents sue DCS? Yes, divided justices rule

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Indiana Lawyer Focus

A sharply divided Indiana Supreme Court decision that a family may sue the state’s child protection agency for negligence is sure to resonate within the Department of Child Services, attorneys familiar with the case said.

“The whole purpose of this appeal was to try to hold the Department of Child Services accountable for its failure to abide by statutory requirements,” said Adam Sedia of Rubino Ruman Crosmer & Polen LLC of Dyer, who successfully argued the case decided in a 3-2 opinion Nov. 26.

Sedia will continue to represent the family in the case that’s been remanded to Vanderburgh Superior Court, where a status conference is scheduled for Jan. 7. At issue is DCS’ failure to disclose to parents allegations of sexual abuse of their 2-year-old daughter by a 12-year-old relative. The parents knew of allegations that the relative had abused a 4-year-old son, but they weren’t informed by DCS that the juvenile who was adjudicated delinquent also said he inappropriately touched their daughter.

Evansville police learned of the allegations regarding the daughter and reported them to DCS as required under the child abuse reporting statute, I.C. 31-33-6-1. But DCS didn’t notify the parents about the abuse allegations. Sedia said the mother learned of those allegations more than a year later during an email exchange unrelated to DCS.

Chief Justice Brent Dickson, writing for the majority joined by Justices Steven David and Robert Rucker, said that the failure of DCS to disclose the abuse allegations to the parents gave them a private right of action against the agency under the Tort Claim Act.

The plaintiffs “contend that DCS’s inaction with respect to the separate report of abuse to Daughter hindered their ability to obtain proper treatment. The facts, which we must construe in favor of the plaintiffs as the non-moving party on summary judgment, do not fall within the circumstances granting immunity under the plain words of the statute. … Accordingly, summary judgment is not proper,” Dickson wrote.

“Because plaintiffs’ claims against DCS do not result from the ‘initiation of a judicial or an administrative proceeding,’ DCS is not immune under Indiana Code Section 34-13-3-3(6), and summary judgment in favor of DCS is therefore improper,” the majority held.

While reversing the Vanderburgh County court’s grant of summary judgment for the agency, justices affirmed summary judgment in favor of Evansville police and the Vanderburgh County Prosecutor’s Office in F.D., G.D., and T.D. b/n/f J.D. and M.D.; and J.D. and M.D., individually v. Indiana Dept. of Child Services, Evansville Police Dept., and Vanderburgh County Prosecutor’s Office, 82S01-1301-CT-19.

Sedia believes the majority applied strict construction to determine DCS had an affirmative duty under I.C. 31-33-6-1 to notify the parents about the abuse allegations. “Based on the plain language, DCS isn’t afforded immunity,” he said. “I think the Legislature imposed this duty on DCS for a reason.”

But Justice Loretta Rush wrote a dissent joined by Justice Mark Massa that didn’t find anything of the sort.

“In the absence of immunity, Indiana law requires us to analyze whether the Legislature intended the violation of the Notice Statute to give rise to a negligence action. Applying that analysis, I can find no such legislative intent here,” Rush wrote.

“I do not condone DCS’s egregious conduct of allegedly not notifying parents of their child’s abuse, but not every breach of a statutory duty provides plaintiffs with a negligence action. … I conclude DCS is immune from liability, and even if it weren’t, the Notice Statute would not provide plaintiffs with a private right of action,” she wrote.

The decision split the court’s experienced juvenile court jurists – David and Rush. Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathryn Dolan said neither would comment on the ruling beyond the written opinions.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s office defended the suit, and Zoeller said in a statement that under the immunity principle behind Indiana’s Tort Claim Act, “taxpayers who did nothing to cause a situation ought not be held financially responsible without limit for actions of government employees.

“We respectfully disagree with the narrow scope of the Indiana Supreme Court majority’s opinion as to the State and immunity. Whether liability exists is a separate question that will be determined by the trial court. The Office of the Indiana Attorney General supports the prompt reporting of and prompt investigation of allegations of child abuse and neglect so that children are not subjected to further victimization, consistent with statutes the Legislature has passed,” Zoeller said.

Kaarin M. Lueck, a public defender in Richmond who writes the Indiana Juvenile Justice blog, said the impact of the decision remains to be seen, but the facts of this case appear to be narrow. “It’s a tragedy, and hopefully it doesn’t happen often,” she said.

“This case is another aspect of increased scrutiny of DCS processes and the expectation of no mistakes given what is at risk,” Lueck said, noting reforms within the agency in the last couple of years.

“In the world of all (Child in Need of Services) and delinquency cases, this scenario is going to play out in a small amount of cases,” Lueck said. “Usually, when there is an allegation of sex abuse, the child-victim is interviewed, and the parent is aware of the CPS assessment.

“By statute, DCS’ investigation can and usually will be shared with the prosecutor’s office for possible criminal or delinquency allegations,” she explained. “If the alleged perpetrator is adjudicated to be a delinquent, he or she is generally put into rehabilitative services that usually involve revealing any other potential victims. The delinquent child may be given a diagnostic polygraph to aid in this process. If any other victims are revealed, the therapist is required to notify DCS of new child abuse allegations. The assigned Child Protection Services worker will conduct their investigation. That is the point where the notification statute – I.C. 31-33-18-4 – requires that the parent, guardian or custodian be notified of the assessment in this scenario.”  

Sedia said there was deposition testimony in this case that the failure to notify was characterized as, “It just fell through the cracks.” He’s uncertain whether the high court’s decision may result in other similar claims against DCS.

“There’s always the freak case, and I hope this is it,” Sedia said. “I don’t know how many similar situations there are and have been, but it certainly presents something for the Department of Child Services to take caution of in the future.”

Lueck said the decision will force DCS “to figure out how to deal with these problems without opening up the floodgates of civil litigation.”

“As big a machine as DCS has become, how do you ensure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again?” Lueck said. “This cannot be the only time there’s been a mistake.”•


    Please contact me @812-283-7246 Thanks Mrs.Houglin
    • Sueing the state as well dcs
      Please so we can discuss about my issues and concerns that have on suing the state my contact information is 260 387 9942
    • this just happend to me
      my step daughter has been beaten by her father..who with holds visits from us. she was finally taken from his home. we were made aware of all of this when my wife was made aware of a bench warrent and turned herself in. she was shown pictures of her daughter beaten black and blue and hand prints up and down her legs. DCS claims they tried to contact us and even had our number but there is no record of them contacting us...what can we do in this case. they wont give her daughter to us because they couldnt contact us...or rather didnt contact us.
      Our son was taken at 4monthes old they said he was taken because of neglect and abuse and not being cared for but this is not the situation they keep changing things on the papers and tricked us into signing a CHINS paper we Need HELP we want our son back its been almost 10months and still the same crap

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    1. Am I the only one who sees that the City is essentially giving away the MSA site AND giving millions to build new buildings on the site when this site would be the perfect place for the Justice Complex? Across from City-County, check; keeping it centrally located, check, etc. It's my understanding that the GM site must be purchased by the City from Motors Liquidation Company. STOP WASTING WHAT WE ALREADY HAVE AND OUR TAX DOLLARS! The Ballard Administration has not been known for it's common sense...never voted for him and never will!

    2. This guy sounds like the classic molester/manipulator.

    3. Louis D. Brandeis was born in 1856. At 9 years of age it would have been 1865. The Brandeis family did not own slaves. My source Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin L. Urofsky.

    4. My name is Matthew Lucas Major, I recently went through a jury trial in Bloomington , In. It was the week of Feb 19-21. Although I have been incarcerated since August 5, 2014. The reason I 'am writing to you sir is on the 21 of February the jury came in with a very excessive and wrongful verdict of guilty on 6 child molesting charges against my daughter who was 9 at the time I was accused. I also had 2 other Felonies one of Intimidation and 1 of Sexual Vicarious Gratification. Judge Marc Kellam on the second day of trial gave me a not guilty on those 2 felonies. The jury was sent out during that time and when brought back Judge Kellam told them to not concern themselves with the 2 Felonies that he ruled on them. They were told to not let evidence they had already heard influence there verdicts. I never in my life touched any child sexually and definitely not with my own daughter. When I was arrested Detective Shawn Karr told me I would be convicted guilty just on my daughters word even without evidence. That's just what happened. my public defender did me so wrong he never once proved to the court and jury all the lies the child told, and Jeremy Noel my public defender could of proven the lies easily. The stories in Serenity's depositions and Forensic interview changed and were not consistent as Prosecutor Darcie Fawcett claimed they were. Yet my attorney never mentioned that. The facts that the child accused me of full penetration in her vagina and rectum was proven lies. Doctor Roberta Hibbard of Riley hospital in Indianapolis confirmed Serenity's hymen intact, no scars, no tearing, no signs of rape to her. Yet my attorney didn't use that knowledge . the DNA was all in my favor. I tell you I will spend my entire life in prison going through rape and beatings etc. even Judge Kellam abused his authority by telling the jurors to listen and believe what the prosecutors side in evidence like my daughters testimony. In one interview with the detectives my daughter got flustered with her mom and said on camera " I'm saying what you told me to mom"!! Yet Mr. Noel said nor did anything to even resemble a defense attorney. Judge Kellam allowed edited version of a taped conversation between the child and her mother. Also Judge Kellam allowed the Prosecutor too bring in to my case a knife found under my seat, the knife wasn't part of my case. She was allowed by my attorney and the judge to put a huge picture of it on the screen and huge picture of my naked privates in a full courtroom and open court. Ms. Fawcett says to jury see how easy Mr. Major could reach the knife and cut his Childs throat. Even though I had no weapons charge against these cases. This gave the jurors prejudice thought against me thinking I threatened her with that knife and how scared she would of been knowing i could get it and kill her. On my sentencing court March 19, 2014 my public defender told Judge Kellam he wish to resign from being my attorney and wished for the court to give me outside council to file a error to trial or appeal. We were denied. Now after openly knowing my public defender don't want to represent me he has to. Well when as parents we make our kids clean a room when they really don't wish to, well the child will but don't mean she will do a good job, that's where I'm at with Mr. Noel. please dont ignore mine and my families pleas for your help . we have all the legal proof you could need to prove Im innocent. Please dont make my spend years in prison innocent when you can fix this wrong. Im not saying Im a perfect man or that I was a perfect dad to my 2 children none of us are. Ive made some bad choices in life and I paid for them. But I didnt ever touch or rape my daughter . I love my children with all my heart. And now through needing attention and a ex-wife who told my granny several times she wish she could put me in prison to get me out of their lives. Well my ex finally accomplished her goal. Sad part is she is destroying our daughter with all this horrific lies and things she taught my daughter to say. My daughter will need therapist to ever hope for a chance of a normal life after what she had done to her by her mom and their side of the family. My daughter told everyone even on stand she had a dream months before i supposedly molested her in this dream I was molesting her and when I finally did it matched her dream perfectly. She admitted to watching movies about little girls being molested and watching U-Tube videos about child molesting all before it happened supposedly to her. Doesn't that sound very unusual that a non molested 9 yr old would need to know so much about being molested? The only reason I could think a 9 year old would need so much information is to be prepared to know what to say and be able to say how it felt what took place etc.. So when questioned by authorities she would be prepared. And there again sir if a parent is pre grooming a 9 year old child she would need intimate details . Like telling her daughter about a couple moles on my private area. The child admitted to sneaking my cell and looking many many times at nudes of me and my girlfriend even one where my penis was entering my girlfriends vagina. In that picture my moles are obvious. Yet when prosecutor showed everyone in court my privates and pictures of the moles she said the only way the child would know about them is if she saw them for herself. My attorney once again said nothing about the pictures my child saw. Or could a ex-wife be able to describe my moles to help her case against getting rid of me? I beg you help me. This is my very existence. Ive lost everything , a good job, a wonderful girlfriend, my freedom, but worse thing Ive lost is my children. They were my reason to get up every morning and strive to be better. The wonderful bond I had with my Serenity is gone. After this I would be afraid to even hug her for fear of what next can they do to me. I'm not afraid to tell you I sit here in this cell and try to hold back my tears. Everyone knows you cant show weakness in prison. My life has already been threatened here at Wabash Valley Prison. After only 3 days of arrival. I was tricked into signing a waiver now Im in G Block General Population with 6 child molesting felony charges. Mrs. Hart as a 18 year old I almost died hooked to machines in hospital almost 1 month and now I know that fear was childish compared to this . I cant help but put emotions in this, after all Mrs. Hart Im human and God help Me I never been more afraid in my life. I didnt hurt my little girl I didnt touch her sexually. As much as it shreds me and fills my mind what Im facing I worry more about my mom and granny because of their great love for me mam they are suffering so deeply. I aint done this things but my loved ones suffering right along beside me and If you take my case you will be in essence freeing them also. I sent momma this letter and asked her to email it to you. I'm scared I have been done so unjustly by our legal system and I need you to fix this and give me freedom. I ask you please don't just ignore my pleas. Here in America its nice to be able to trust our legal justice system, well they destroyed my and my loved ones trust in our justice system . And I'm trusting in You !!! My entire family is suffering this nightmare with me. My 77 year old granny had a stroke and isn't doing so well. My single mother that raised 3 kids alone is dying from Lupus and since my arrest has stayed so sick and weary. Our lives torn to peices by a government I was taught I could trust in. my momma has tried so many innocent project and wrongfully accused and cant get anywhere. please please help me. A quote from the late Nelson Mandela: To be free is not merely to cast off ones chains, But to live in a way that respects and enhances The Freedom Of Others. I have Faith in you and your clinic to cast my chains off and give me freedom I do deserve as a wrongfully accused Man, son, brother, father, friend. Matthew Major DOC# 246179 Cause # : 53c02-1308-FA-000779 God Bless you. Please contact me with your decision so I know you made a life changing decision for me , just please at least write me so I know you care enough about your citizens to respond to cries for your help. You can speak openly with my mother Charlotte Spain (828) 476-0406: 71 Lakeview Dr. Canton, NC 28716 Thank You Matthew Major I know yall get thousands of request and inmates claiming innocence, and each person who are innocent deserve to have organizations like yours willing to fight for them and I give yall so much Thanks and I thank God everyday yall are out there caring enough to help free the innocents. Since discovering firsthand how easily lives and families can be destroyed by Poor Defense attorneys not doing their job . And Prosecutors allowed to do as they please in court

    5. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.