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State’s $25 million payout in DCS abuses case is the largest ever of its kind

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The Indiana attorney general and Department of Child Services’ decision to settle a lawsuit brought by a wrongly prosecuted family yielded the largest payment of its type in state history.

Attorneys for the state and for the Finnegan family in northern Indiana concluded a long-running lawsuit last month when the parties agreed to settle a federal civil rights complaint at a cost to taxpayers of $25 million.

The money will be paid from the tort claims fund from general tax revenue dollars. The Finnegan settlement is outsized — about two to three times the total of all settlements, judgments, claims and litigation costs the tort claims fund has paid in any of the past five fiscal years, according to state budget data. Between 2000 and 2016, the total of claims paid from that fund in any fiscal year ranges from $3.3 million for 2002 to $13.5 million in 2012 — $4.7 million of which was partial state compensation for victims of the Indiana State Fair stage collapse.

Corey Elliot, spokesman for Attorney General Curtis Hill, said the settlement was a good deal for Hoosiers. The Finnegans had won a $31.3 million jury award the state was appealing, and taxpayers also could have been on the hook for millions in attorney fees in that case. The $25 million settlement includes all legal fees and costs.

“By settling, we saved taxpayers about 30 percent from what we estimate we likely would have owed in damages, attorney fees, and costs if the appeal was unsuccessful,” Elliot said in a statement. “Also, it is highly unusual for parties to settle by such a large margin, so this is a particularly good settlement for taxpayers.”

Rich Waples, an Indianapolis attorney who was part of Roman and Lynette Finnegan’s legal team, argued the damages portion of their trial to a federal jury in South Bend. In October 2015, the jury found the conduct of Pulaski County DCS workers and a state police officer toward the family beginning 10 years earlier “shocked the conscience.” Waples said he had argued $25 million was on the low end of damages the Finnegans should receive, but he said the family was pleased the case was finally resolved.

While the state admitted no wrongdoing in agreeing to the settlement, Waples said, “I think they’re recognizing tremendous harm was done here to the family, and they agree with the jury that they should be adequately compensated for it.

“What the state did was kind of blow up the family,” he said. “It’s a testament to how strong the family was that they were able to come back together again.”

Roman and Lynette Finnegan were investigated and charged with neglect after the death of their daughter Jessica in their home in Francesville in 2005.

But even after an investigation showed the girl died due to a prescription medication error that caused a fatal drug interaction with another medication she took to treat a lifelong heart condition, DCS continued to pursue false neglect substantiations against the parents.

A Pulaski County judge found investigators had falsified official records to justify the false substantiations that he ruled were arbitrary and capricious. DCS’ intervention also resulted in the removal of the Finnegans’ other children, who were placed in foster care.

The jury awarded $31.3 million in damages to be divided among the Finngeans and their three children, Johnathon Abair, Tabitha Abair and Katelynn Salyer. Damages included more than $12 million for actions of state actors as well as compensatory damages on 22 First, Fourth and 14th Amendment violations involving the Finnegans.

Waples said in the course of the civil litigation that followed after the parents were cleared and the abuses of DCS agents became known, Roman Finnegan lost his job as a sergeant at the Department of Correction and the family lost its home. The family also suffered enormous emotional strain, Waples said.

“Paying out this much money to the family sends a pretty strong message, a pretty clear message, that what happened to the Finnegans was wrong,” he said.

The $25 million settlement will be paid from the state treasury because Indiana law forbids liability insurance to cover acts of the state and its non-policy-level employees with a few narrow exceptions. Indiana’s Tort Claims Act limits total payouts from a single event to no more than $5 million, but that limit does not apply to judgments in federal court.

The Tort Claims Fund does not receive a budgetary appropriation. Rather, the money is transferred from the general fund to pay settlements and judgments that arise against the state.

The state auditor in annual financial reports for each fiscal year provides a forecast based on pending litigation of how much the state is expected to be obligated to pay from the fund in the next year. The estimate for this current fiscal year was $10 million. The Finnegan settlement will push the total to more than $31 million.

DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura and Deputy Director of Communications James B. Wide declined repeated requests for comment on why the agency chose to settle the case, and about whether the agency had taken any steps to safeguard against future conduct of case workers and managers for which the state could be liable.•

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  • But ...
    But it does make sense that Indy bureaucrats who failed to intervene years ago and take action to set this aright for this poor family would be scattering like roaches about now. Lucky for them journalism is dead in Indiana, they have nothing to fear but an irrational fear of being exposed .... that media died of collusion long, long ago.
  • Really??
    Johnson, you think this went on for a decade without Indy making the crucial litigation decisions? Indiana government is top down.
    • Not In Marion County
      This was not in Marion County - northern Indiana. One of the attorneys is from Indianapolis.
      • Good
        It's good they got justice. It's rare. It happened to me and I didn't even get a dime.
      • Whose your statists?
        My observation: Arrogance, hubris and the abuse of power tend to run together when the strings are pulled by the Marion County elitists. For the very few times they are smacked down like this, they likely get away with thousands upon thousands of successful smack downs on the hapless peasants who cannot afford to fight back. When due process and the rule of law means so very little to the High Court, as it has demonstrated for decades, how can the rule of law mean much at all to the lesser minded minions (be they social workers or IBLE diversity hires) working the statist bureaucracy on behalf of the powers that be?
        • Blame them they deserve it
          @ Susan, you are 100% correct. Laziness is running rapid among the justice system and DCS
        • Blame who is to blame
          There would have been no judgment, no settlement, no legal costs, no financial burden on Indiana taxpayers had DCS simply removed the Finnegans from the child abuse registry after abuse charges against them were dropped in November 2007. DCS mounted a 10-year battle to keep innocent Indiana citizens on the child abuse registry without regard for the potential consequences to Indiana taxpayers. That is the real story here.

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          1. The voices of the prophets are more on blogs than subway walls these days, Dawn. Here is the voice of one calling out in the wilderness ... against a corrupted judiciary ... that remains corrupt a decade and a half later ... due to, so sadly, the acquiescence of good judges unwilling to shake the forest ... for fear that is not faith .. http://www.ogdenonpolitics.com/2013/09/prof-alan-dershowitz-on-indiana.html

          2. So I purchased a vehicle cash from the lot on West Washington in Feb 2017. Since then I found it the vehicle had been declared a total loss and had sat in a salvage yard due to fire. My title does not show any of that. I also have had to put thousands of dollars into repairs because it was not a solid vehicle like they stated. I need to find out how to contact the lawyers on this lawsuit.

          3. It really doesn't matter what the law IS, if law enforcement refuses to take reports (or take them seriously), if courts refuse to allow unrepresented parties to speak (especially in Small Claims, which is supposedly "informal"). It doesn't matter what the law IS, if constituents are unable to make effective contact or receive any meaningful response from their representatives. Two of our pets were unnecessarily killed; court records reflect that I "abandoned" them. Not so; when I was denied one of them (and my possessions, which by court order I was supposed to be able to remove), I went directly to the court. And earlier, when I tried to have the DV PO extended (it expired while the subject was on probation for violating it), the court denied any extension. The result? Same problems, less than eight hours after expiration. Ironic that the county sheriff was charged (and later pleaded to) with intimidation, but none of his officers seemed interested or capable of taking such a report from a private citizen. When I learned from one officer what I needed to do, I forwarded audio and transcript of one occurrence and my call to law enforcement (before the statute of limitations expired) to the prosecutor's office. I didn't even receive an acknowledgement. Earlier, I'd gone in to the prosecutor's office and been told that the officer's (written) report didn't match what I said occurred. Since I had the audio, I can only say that I have very little faith in Indiana government or law enforcement.

          4. One can only wonder whether Mr. Kimmel was paid for his work by Mr. Burgh ... or whether that bill fell to the citizens of Indiana, many of whom cannot afford attorneys for important matters. It really doesn't take a judge(s) to know that "pavement" can be considered a deadly weapon. It only takes a brain and some education or thought. I'm glad to see the conviction was upheld although sorry to see that the asphalt could even be considered "an issue".

          5. In response to bryanjbrown: thank you for your comment. I am familiar with Paul Ogden (and applaud his assistance to Shirley Justice) and have read of Gary Welsh's (strange) death (and have visited his blog on many occasions). I am not familiar with you (yet). I lived in Kosciusko county, where the sheriff was just removed after pleading in what seems a very "sweetheart" deal. Unfortunately, something NEEDS to change since the attorneys won't (en masse) stand up for ethics (rather making a show to please the "rules" and apparently the judges). I read that many attorneys are underemployed. Seems wisdom would be to cull the herd and get rid of the rotting apples in practice and on the bench, for everyone's sake as well as justice. I'd like to file an attorney complaint, but I have little faith in anything (other than the most flagrant and obvious) resulting in action. My own belief is that if this was medicine, there'd be maimed and injured all over and the carnage caused by "the profession" would be difficult to hide. One can dream ... meanwhile, back to figuring out to file a pro se "motion to dismiss" as well as another court required paper that Indiana is so fond of providing NO resources for (unlike many other states, who don't automatically assume that citizens involved in the court process are scumbags) so that maybe I can get the family law attorney - whose work left me with no settlement, no possessions and resulted in the death of two pets (etc ad nauseum) - to stop abusing the proceedings supplemental and small claims rules and using it as a vehicle for harassment and apparently, amusement.

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