Indiana seeks to keep records sealed in child services cases

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Lawyers for Indiana’s Department of Child Services are pushing to seal records in a federal class action lawsuit accusing the child welfare agency of inadequately protecting thousands of children in its care.

In a brief filed Aug. 23, attorneys for Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and DCS Director Terry Stigdon said sealing the documents would protect the children in the case.

Two child advocacy groups, A Better Childhood and Indiana Disability Rights, and the international law firm Kirkland & Ellis filed a brief Friday on behalf of numerous foster children that questioned whose privacy the state’s brief sought to protect, The Journal Gazette reported.

“Plaintiffs have never contended that access to the children’s individually identifiable information, such as their names, addresses, or birthdates, are in the public interest. However, the details of Plaintiffs’ allegations, and the children’s stories as they relate to structural deficiencies in Indiana’s child welfare agencies, are most certainly in the public interest,” court records show.

The original lawsuit, filed in June, alleges that the state agency failed to protect 22,000 children with open child welfare cases, which includes more than 14,000 who are in out-of-home care.

Indiana’s DCS has defended its work.

Marcia Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, said the law unmistakably makes actual court records private, such as the docket in the case. But information derived from the documents is public, she noted. Lowry added that the children are safeguarded; their names are altered and personal information that could identify them is redacted.

“We think it’s important to tell the children’s stories—what happened to them, what kind of harm they went through. We think the state is taking way too broad a position,” Lowry said.

But Indiana’s attorneys noted in the brief that all lawyers have equal access to the closed records, and no one is prejudiced.

The state has also requested a stop to the exchange of official documents until the motion to dismiss has been ruled on. If the case continues, Indiana additionally asked for each child’s claim to be litigated individually “given the unique, individualized nature of each Plaintiff and his or her unique history and circumstances.”

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