DCS settles for $750K with family in child removal case

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The parents of a child who was removed by the Department of Child Services for three months as an infant reached a $750,000 settlement with the agency earlier this month.

Yashil and Zeel Bhatt sued DCS officials in November 2021 after the agency removed their 6-month-old son, who was at the hospital with a fractured arm.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division.

Court documents show the Bhatts noticed one morning in November 2020 their son wasn’t moving his arm and appeared to have pain when touched on the arm.

They took him to the emergency room at Community North Hospital in Indianapolis.

X-rays indicated their son had a fracture in his arm. According to court documents, the doctor who reviewed the X-rays said the injury was “somewhat unusual” for a 6-month-old, but additional scans found no other injuries.

While the Bhatts were still at the hospital, a doctor said he would have to call a social worker as a matter of formality.

DCS caseworker Brandon Johnson, who identified himself as a social worker, removed the child from the Bhatts without a court order and placed him with his grandparents, according to the complaint.

Johnson eventually told the Bhatts they could not take their son home and told them on more than one occasion they did not need to get an attorney, court documents show.

A Preliminary Report of Alleged Child Abuse or Neglect, prepared by a DCS worker, said the child was not in imminent danger of serious bodily harm, according to the complaint.

A pediatric orthopedic specialist also found no signs of non-accidental trauma.

The Bhatts told Johnson about the doctor’s assessment, but the complaint says DCS filed a child in need of services (CHINS) petition that falsely stated the hospital would conduct a “skeletal survey” without indicating one had already been done.

Johnson is also accused of telling the Bhatts they would need to go to a “Zoom meeting” and reiterating that they wouldn’t need an attorney. The Bhatts didn’t understand they were going to court.

The Bhatts appeared at a detention hearing with no counsel. Johnson appeared with Eric McDonald, who after that was assigned to the case. DCS requested continued removal of the child and placement with his grandparents, with supervised parenting visits.

The court ordered continued detention of the child, but the Bhatts say the court relied on “false and misleading” representations from DCS, including statements and material omissions in the intake officer’s Report of Preliminary Inquiry and Investigation, which Johnson prepared.

The Bhatts obtained counsel after the hearing.

DCS filed an amended CHINS petition because the original misspelled Zeel’s name, but the petition didn’t mention doctors’ statements that there were no major signs of non-accidental trauma and that it was possible the child had a minor, unwitnessed injury that caused the fracture.

According to the complaint, allegations of physical abuse against the Bhatts were substantiated by Johnson and approved by DCS in December 2020.

The Bhatts sought administrative review of DCS’s substantiations.

A doctor who examined the child sent a letter to a DCS attorney stating her opinion that the child’s injury was accidental.

According to the complaint, DCS Regional Manager Peggy Surbey completed the review in February 2021 and upheld the substantiations.

While their son was away, the Bhatts underwent parental and home assessments as required by DCS, according to the complaint. They scored a zero on the home assessment, which indicates “no issues and no red flags,” and a therapist observed the child trusts his parents.

The Bhatts got their son back on Feb. 10, 2021.

The court granted DCS’s oral motion to dismiss that month. According to the complaint, Surbey and a supervisor, Shannon Johnson, were supposed to review the investigation and Johnson’s findings, but they failed to do so.

The Bhatts filed their complaint under 42 U.S.C. §1983, claiming violations of their civil rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

DCS denied violating the Bhatts’ constitutional rights, and the parties participated in a settlement conference in February. The court approved the settlement March 9.

The settlement is for $750,000; an additional $2,835 was recovered from the defendants for attorney fees and discovery violations.

A DCS spokesperson said the agency does not have a comment on the case.

The case is Yashil Bhatt and Zeel Bhatt for themselves and their minor child TB v. Brandon Johnson, Eric McDonald, Peggy Surbey, and Shannon M. Pickering, 1:21-cv-2873.

The Bhatts were represented by Carol Nemeth Joven and Ron Waicukauski of Williams & Piatt LLC while the defendants were represented by Eric Shouse, Jordan Hall and William Young of Lewis and Wilkins LLP.

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