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October 25, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The many misdoings of child welfare agencies continue to cost state taxpayers money — in this case, big money (Indianapolis Star, 10/7/15).

Back in 2005, Indiana residents Roman and Lynnette Finnegan’s 14 year old daughter died. She’d had serious chronic health conditions and her doctor apparently made a spectacular error in prescribing her medication. According to the Finnegan’s lawsuit, that’s what killed their daughter, Jessica Salyer.

But the state’s Department of Child Services decided it was neglect on the part of the Finnegans that caused the girl’s death. And, having so decided, they proceeded to destroy the Finnegan’s family, employment and reputations. The DCS claims it did nothing wrong.

Bryan Corbin, spokesman for the Indiana attorney general's office, said state officials "acted reasonably under the circumstances, based on the information available to them at the time, and consistent with the state’s duty to protect children and enforce laws for public safety."

A federal jury disagreed, awarding the Finnegans a whopping $31 million in damages in their civil rights lawsuit against DCS and various individuals including a doctor employed by the state in its investigation and a police detective.

On Tuesday, a federal court jury determined that three Indiana Department of Child Services employees, an Indiana State Police detective and a doctor had violated the constitutional rights of Roman and Lynnette Finnegan and their children. The officials were accused of falsifying records, sabotaging investigations into what happened and retaliating against the couple for complaining about how they were treated.

That behavior compounded the tragedy already undergone by the Finnegans when their daughter died. Imagine having your child die unexpectedly and, instead of being allowed to grieve her death, being told you were at fault, having your other children taken from you, losing your job and having your friends and relatives all of a sudden look at you like you were a child-killer. Well, that’s what the State of Indiana did to the Finnegans. The jury empathized.

DCS and State Police suspected Lynnette and Roman Finnegan of killing the girl, court records state. DCS removed two of the Finnegans' other children from their home, State Police arrested the couple, and the prosecutor charged them with neglect.

After a yearslong ordeal, the criminal charges were dismissed and a judge unsubstantiated the allegations of neglect. But the Finnegans' attorneys said the damage was already done.

"To lose a child is about the most traumatic event any human being can experience," attorney Ron Waicukauski said. "But then to be accused of killing that child, to be stigmatized in the community as the killer of that child, for the other children to be taken away, to be arrested and taken to jail for that?"

Waicukauski said Roman Finnegan, the girl's stepfather, was suspended from work, and the couple lost their income, their home and their reputations. Relationships within the family were "severely damaged and, to some extent, remain damaged to this day," he added.

"The DCS essentially took an incredible tragedy and made it worse," said attorney Richard Waples, who also represented the Knox family.

Indeed.

Rarely do child welfare agencies err this badly, but what we see in the Finnegan’s case we’ve seen before — many times before.

What’s described in their lawsuit, and that the jury apparently agreed occurred, is a state agency that’s used to acting with impunity. They bullied these people using their power to take children from parents and the police assisted every step of the way. The state’s actions were a typical case of “shoot first and ask questions later.” They had the power to take the children from the Finnegans, so they did.

Never mind that the criminal charges were dismissed and the neglect claims found to be baseless. And of course never mind the trauma done to the Finnegans’ remaining children who, after all, lost their sister and were taken from their parents and forced to live with strangers all in the blink of an eye. Did the DCS ever stop to consider what that might do to those kids? Their spokesman recited the agency’s “duty to protect children,” so what about the damage done to those kids?

The simple fact is that, at the time of Jessica’s death, whether the Finnegans had had any hand in it was at least open to question. Otherwise, all the charges, criminal and civil, wouldn’t have been dismissed later. So why not mitigate the damage done to the Finnegans by simply investigating the family’s living situation and gathering information about just what had caused Jessica’s death, leaving the family intact?

But mitigation of suffering apparently wasn’t seen by DCS employees as part of their brief. In the process, they abused the remaining children and made hell the lives of innocent adults.

Are DCS employees evil? Do they intentionally do as much damage as they can? Of course not. But long years of experience tend to educate child welfare workers about the power they wield. The power to take children from parents is perhaps the most awesome of all state powers, excepting only the power to imprison and put a person to death. Doubtless, DCS employees well knew the fear they can instill in parents and they don’t react well to parents who resist their power. That, I suspect, is what the Finnegans meant when they described DCS “retaliating against [them] for complaining about how they were treated.”

Not only do child welfare agencies wield astonishing power, they do so in secret. The actions of DCS agents here look very much like those of people who aren’t used to having their behavior scrutinized by the public. They’re used to running roughshod over parents and having it all kept neatly “in house.” State secrecy about the doings of child welfare agencies begets bad behavior by those agencies. All too often, when that curtain is pulled aside, as it was in the Finnegans’ civil rights trial, the public (in this case, the jury) is appalled by what it finds.

For now, the “remedy” to the Finnegan’s misery is a judgment for $31 million. That of course will do nothing to give them back what they’ve lost. It won’t give them back their reputations, it won’t give them back the time lost with their kids, it won’t take away the horror of being jailed for a “crime” they didn’t commit and it won’t salve the wounds their children suffered by being taken from them.

In short, money is no remedy at all. The best thing the taxpayers of Indiana can do, after they’ve paid up, would be to demand that DCS’s actions be public. Letting the public know what its employees are up to won’t solve all of DCS’s problems, but it would be a huge stride in the right direction. Secrecy laws don’t protect children; all they do is permit incompetence and worse by DCS employees. Until that changes, expect to see more families like the Finnegans destroyed by the very people they’re told are there to serve them.


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#children's welfare, #parents civil rights, #Indiana DCS, #$31 million verdict, #child neglect

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