7th Circuit dismisses CHINS lawsuit challenging Indiana’s foster care system

Editor’s note: This article has been updated.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has dismissed a lawsuit pushing for better treatment of children in Indiana’s foster care system, finding it difficult to determine what options for relief are open to a federal court but closed to a CHINS court.

A panel of appellate judges heard oral arguments in Ashley W., et al. v. Eric Holcomb, et al., 21-3028, on March 30, when the panel of judges expressed skepticism about what the federal court could actually do to help the juvenile plaintiffs.

The case, filed in 2019 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, alleged that 10 juvenile plaintiffs who were all in the custody of the Indiana Department of Child Services were taken from abusive homes, then subjected to additional trauma by being cycled through multiple placements and not being given adequate care.

After the district court denied the state’s motion to dismiss in 2021, Indiana appealed to the 7th Circuit.

Only two of the original 10 plaintiffs, represented by Kirkland & Ellis, along with Indiana Disability Rights and A Better Childhood, were left in the suit. The children’s advocates expressed their desire for the federal court to issue a detailed regulatory injunction specifying better procedures for both the Indiana Department of Child Services’ operations and child in need of services proceedings.

But the 7th Circuit appeared to be pulling teeth from the plaintiffs’ attorney during oral arguments in asking counsel to pinpoint the specific relief it was seeking for the children.

The 7th Circuit ultimately concluded in a Monday decision that the district court’s reasoning did not suffice as to why neither of the plaintiffs’ claims were subject to Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971).

“Take the first. That plaintiffs have sought some relief (potentially) unavailable in a CHINS case may establish standing, but it does not demonstrate that a federal court may adjudicate all of plaintiffs’ claims,” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for the panel, joined by Judges David Hamilton and Diane Wood. “Disputes that can be resolved in a CHINS case must be resolved there. It is essential to determine which is which.

“We were reluctant in (Nicole K. v. Stigdon, 990 F.3d 534 (7th Cir. 2021)), to resolve Younger arguments about CHINS proceedings as an all-or-none matter; the scope and complexity of CHINS proceedings makes a one-size-fits-all solution inapt,” Easterbrook continued. “For the same reason, however, the existence of some issues outside the ambit of a CHINS proceeding does not mean that Younger drops out of the picture.”

The 7th Circuit also found that following from Nicole K., the absence of automatic counsel at public expense for every child in a CHINS proceeding does not permit a federal court to deem all CHINS proceedings defective and bypass the state judiciary.

Turning to how the federal court could be of assistance in a way the CHINS courts could not, the 7th Circuit reiterated that the plaintiffs’ counsel “did not have an answer.”

“We could imagine, as a potential response, a contention that the state must increase the payments offered to people willing to be foster parents, or that the Department needs money to hire more social workers so that the caseload of each may be reduced, but counsel for the plaintiffs disclaimed any argument that a federal court could or should increase the agency’s budget,” Easterbrook wrote. “Yet, short of ordering the state to come up with more money, it is hard to see what options are open to a federal court but closed to a CHINS court.”

As such, the 7th Circuit concluded that the live contentions in the litigation may all be resolved by judges in CHINS proceedings. Additionally, it held that Younger and Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415 (1979), require federal judges to abstain.

The appellate court also found that it would be improper for a federal court to issue an injunction requiring a state official to comply with state law.

“The sort of questions that lie outside the scope of CHINS proceedings, such as how the Department handles investigations before filing a CHINS petition, do not affect the status of the two remaining plaintiffs,” Easterbrook concluded. “Any contentions that rest on state law also are outside the province of the federal court. It follows that this suit must be dismissed.”

In a statement, DCS said it was “pleased” by the 7th Circuit’s ruling.

“These important issues involving Hoosier children are best decided by our own state courts, and DCS has full confidence in Indiana judges to act in the best interest of Indiana children to meet the individualized needs of each case,” the department said. “DCS remains committed to the protection of Indiana’s most vulnerable and will continue to provide the right care to the right child at the right time.”

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