DCS employees sued in federal court in continued fallout from child death case

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Judah Morgan (IL file photo)

Two Indiana Department of Child Services case workers and a former department director in LaPorte County are facing a federal lawsuit over a 4-year-old who was tortured and killed by his parents, the most recent development in the legal fallout from the child’s death.

The lawsuitEstate of J.M., by Jenna Hullett, Personal Representative v. Jean Dreessen, Michele Stowers and Michelle Goebel, 3:23-cv-899 — alleges the employees knew the child, Judah Morgan, was at risk of abuse or neglect while with his parents.

The defendants “created and/or increased” that risk, the lawsuit says, by “performing sham investigations” and “downplaying” relatives’ concerns, among other shortcomings.

The lawsuit is seeking emotional distress, special, punitive and exemplary damages of an unspecified amount, plus attorney fees and costs.

According to the complaint, Jean Dreessen and Michele Stowers were family case workers and Michelle Goebel was director of the LaPorte County DCS.

According to the lawsuit, Judah wasn’t allowed to go home with his parents from the hospital when he was born and, at 4 months old, was placed with Jenna Hullett, his second cousin.

The lawsuit says the defendants knew that the parents — Alan Morgan and Mary Yoder — had drug and mental health issues. It also says the defendants knew Morgan was charged in 2012 with domestic violence, battery and strangulation in the presence of a child. That charge was dismissed in 2014 after he completed a “Batterer’s Program.”

Judah had an older sibling, according to the complaint, and there was already an open child in need of services proceeding when Judah was born.

The defendants forced Judah’s case to a close, the lawsuit says, “abandoning him” to the care of his parents.

Judah died in October 2021.

The defendants’ acts and omissions in that time, according to the complaint, included “cherry-picking” information to support closing the case and lowering safety standards for the parents.

“Defendants knew or suspected that J.M. was at risk for abuse and/or neglect while in the custody of Alan Morgan and Mary Yoder, but consciously, willfully and wantonly, recklessly, deliberately indifferently, and in some instances intentionally ignored that risk and placed J.M. — for the first time in his life — in the sole care and custody of Alan Morgan and Mary Yoder,” the lawsuit says.

Morgan pleaded guilty to murder and felony battery in connection with Judah’s death, receiving a 70-year sentence. 

Yoder has pleaded guilty to neglect, abuse and torture. She is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 1.

The lawsuit was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana.

DCS told Indiana Lawyer it cannot comment on pending litigation.

Also on Monday, the same plaintiff filed an amended complaint in state court that adds Yoder and DCS as defendants.

That case — Estate of Judah Morgan, by Jenna Hullett, Personal Representative v. Alan Morgan, Mary Yoder, and Indiana Department of Child Services, 32D01-2301-CT-000004 — began as a civil action against Morgan, though DCS’s involvement has taken center stage.

Before becoming a party to the case, a Hendricks Superior Court judge found the agency in contempt for not being in full compliance with a court order to produce documents.

At a hearing in September, DCS Director Eric Miller said discovery production was complete, even though his email wasn’t among those searched.

Other documents produced showed emails involving Miller — as well as the agency’s former director — that demonstrated the mailboxes contain responsive emails and should be searched, Judge Robert Freese ruled.

Freese ordered DCS to “produce all responsive emails to or from” the directors by Oct. 19.

After the hearing, Hullett’s attorney, Charlie Rice, alluded to future litigation involving individual DCS employees.

The statute of limitations for claims against those responsible for Judah’s death is up on Wednesday, according to plaintiff’s court filings.

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