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Statute granting DCS immunity applies to nearly all of family’s claims

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A case involving the Department of Child Services before the Indiana Court of Appeals Wednesday provided the court with two issues of first impression – the interpretation of a statute relating to the agency, and the liberty interests that may reside with extended family members involved in the lawsuit.

In D.L., Glen Black, Ann Black, Steven Lucas, and K.L., by her Next Friend, D.L. v. Christine Huck, Laura Zimmerman, Angela Smith Grossman, Rhonda Friend, Angyl McClaine, and Indiana Dept. of Child Svcs., 79A04-1202-CT-61, family members of K.L., born in 2008, sued the Department of Child Services and several employees after the DCS appeared unannounced at Glen and Ann Black’s home and removed K.L. from their custody. A CHINS case had been opened regarding K.L., and K.L.’s biological parents, D.L. and T.L., terminated their parental rights so that K.L. could be adopted by D.L.’s sister, Ann, and her husband.

Before placing K.L. with the Blacks, the agency completed a home study and background check of the couple. The background check turned up no issues; the agency later found a 20-year-old child abuse report against Glen Black, in which his then 16-year-old sister accused him of sexually abusing her as a child. DCS never performed a comprehensive investigation into the report, interviewed the Blacks, or provided a copy of the report to the Blacks. The Blacks didn’t even know of the allegations until K.L. was removed. DCS removed the child without a court order.

K.L. was eventually returned to her biological father’s custody.

The family filed suit alleging eight claims, including negligence and fraud, but Tippecanoe Superior Judge Thomas J. Busch dismissed seven of counts, holding they were barred by quasi-judicial immunity because they were based on allegations that DCS acted wrongly in the course of duties within a CHINS proceeding for K.L. The judge also found that the Blacks, including Steven Black, K.L.’s grandfather, did not have standing to sue because they didn’t have a custodial relationship with K.L. before the CHINS proceedings.

“DCS’s handling of this case was extremely sloppy, careless, and regrettable. Based on a twenty-year-old report and with no investigation, they independently decided to remove K.L. from the Blacks’ home,” Chief Judge Margret Robb wrote. “Because there was no court oversight of DCS’s actions and decisions, and they were not implementing a court order, DCS is not entitled to quasi-judicial immunity for any of the actions underlying the Family’s complaint. DCS may not choose to side-step the judicial process and then hide behind that same process.”

The judges for the first time had to interpret Ind. Code 31-25-2-2.5, which the DCS claimed also granted it immunity. That statute states with regard to DCS that “[t]he following are not personally liable, except to the state, for an official act done or omitted in connection with performance of duties under this title: (1) The director of the department. (2) Other officers and employees of the department.”

This statute does appear to apply to most of the family’s claims, Robb pointed out, except for the fraud claim. That claim is based on alleged acts that would not be within the duties of the department.

The COA also was unable to find any cases to provide guidance as to the liberty interests that may reside with the Blacks in this case. The judges found the family made a convincing argument for finding a liberty interest in favor of Ann and Glen Black, citing cases from other courts, including Rivera v. Marcus, 696 F.2d 1016, 1024-25 (2d Cir. 1982). There is no caselaw to support that the grandfather has a liberty interest, and the judges found Busch correctly determined Steven Black did not have standing to bring suit.

They remanded for further proceedings on the fraud claim.

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