Indiana asking 7th Circuit to review challenge to foster care system

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In a case that even the district court acknowledged tested the limits of federal interference in state court matters, the Indiana Department of Child Services and Gov. Eric Holcomb are asking the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to review the denial of their motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by children in the foster care system.

The plaintiffs in Ashley W. and Betty W., minors, by Next Friends by Denise Durnell, et al. v. Eric Holcomb, in his official capacity as the Governor of Indiana, Terry Stigdon, in her official capacity as the Director of the Indiana Department of Child Services, and the Indiana Department of Child Services, 3:19-cv-129, assert the defendants failed to protect them when they were placed in foster care. They claim that upon being put under the supervision of the Department of Child Services, they suffered additional trauma and did not receive the services and care they needed.

As a part of the lawsuit, the children are asking the federal judiciary to order DCS to change its practices and procedures when children are removed from their homes. The plaintiffs allege violations of their due process rights under the 14th Amendment; their right to familiar association under the First, Ninth and 14th Amendments; and their rights under the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980. Also, a subclass of plaintiffs argued the defendants violated their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

In a May 2020 ruling, the Southern Indiana District Court rejected the bulk of the defendants’ motion to dismiss with the exception of the plaintiffs’ claim under the Adoption Act of 1980. The court then in September 2021 allowed the defendants to make an interlocutory appeal, in part, because the courts are split on the application of the Younger abstention doctrine — from Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), which prohibits federal courts exercising jurisdiction over state court proceedings — and the 7th Circuit has not addressed the question.

Turning to the appellate court, the defendants counter the lawsuit is challenging the state court proceedings or orders in child in need of services cases despite the plaintiffs’ assertion they are only contesting the state’s actions and policies that led to those court actions. Consequently, the defendants argue the Younger abstention doctrine should apply in this instance.

“Plaintiffs’ broad challenges to administration of Indiana’s child welfare system would require the district court to review state court decisions in Plaintiffs’ CHINS cases, and would otherwise interfere with state court conduct of those proceedings … ,” the defendants state in their 7th Circuit petition. 

In their brief opposing the defendants’ appeal, the plaintiffs focus their arguments on the district court’s finding that their claims are not barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

Arising from two U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923), and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983), the doctrine prevents losers in state courts from challenging the judgments in federal court.

However, in the Indiana case, the district court cited Brokaw v. Weaver 305 F.3d 660, 662 (7th Cir. 2002), in determining Rooker-Feldman did not apply. The plaintiff in Brokaw was removed from her parents’ home based on allegations of neglect. Her subsequent lawsuit against some of her relatives and state agencies was allowed to proceed because she was challenging the actions of the defendants and not the state court’s decision.

“Nowhere do Plaintiffs seek to enjoin any Indiana state court policy or practice at all,” the plaintiffs in Ashley W. argue in their 7th Circuit opposition brief. “Instead, for instance, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants fail to recruit and retain an adequate number and range of foster parents, that Defendants fail to adequately hire, train, supervise, and retain caseworkers, and that Defendants fail to maintain a sufficient placement array. In other words, Plaintiffs challenge Defendants’ conduct independent of any individual CHINS decision.”

The defendants also assert that the 7th Circuit’s recent decision in Nicole K. v. Stigdon, 990 F. 3d 534, 535 (7th Cir. 2021), makes the application of Younger abstention even more appropriate in this case.

The plaintiffs in Nicole K. were minor children involved in CHINS cases who claimed they had a constitutional right to legal representation. The 7th Circuit affirmed the Southern Indiana District Court’s finding that it would be inappropriate for a federal court to resolve the appointment-of-counsel question in any of the plaintiffs’ state court proceedings.

“… (A)s in Nicole K., Plaintiffs assert, on behalf of a purported class, federal constitutional claims against DCS involving Indiana’s child welfare system,” the defendants assert in their petition. “But the claims here are far broader, as is the relief sought. … Plaintiffs here assert sweeping constitutional challenges under multiple theories, and ask for injunctive relief that would put administration of Indiana’s child welfare system under federal district court supervision.”

The plaintiffs counter the reliance on Nicole K. reveals the defendants’ “fundamental misunderstanding and misrepresentation” of their claims. Under the Nicole K. lawsuit, the argument was that the policies and procedures governing the children’s CHINS cases were unconstitutional. Here, the Ashley W. plaintiffs reiterated, they are challenging the constitutionality of a state executive agency’s policies and procedures.

“Their request relief is not a change to the policies and procedures governing CHINS proceedings, but rather to the policies and practices of the state executive agency responsible for operating the Indiana foster care system,” the plaintiffs state in their brief.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from Indiana Disability Rights, Kirkland & Ellis LLP and A Better Childhood. The defendants are represented by the Indiana Attorney General’s office and Barnes & Thornburg.

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