INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Indiana has an increasing number of child welfare cases piling up in courtrooms. However, a new lawsuit is hoping to get the children at the center of those cases their own legal representation.
A class action lawsuit filed by Children’s Advocacy Institute, San Francisco law firm Morrison & Foerster and Indianapolis law firm DeLaney & DeLaney alleges that Indiana is violating the constitutional rights of children involved in Child in Need of Services cases by not providing them with legal counsel during dependency hearings.
The lawsuit reads:
“Removing a child from his or her family is one of the most traumatic experiences that can be imagined. When the government takes a child from his or her home on the grounds of abuse or neglect, it has an obligation to protect not only the child’s safety but also the child’s legal rights. Those rights include the right to be represented by an attorney when the child’s fundamental liberty interests are at stake.”
“In our view the 14th amendment to the united states constitution says if you’re going to be taking someone’s liberty away. They have the right to a lawyer to represent their interests,” Indianapolis attorney Kathleen Delaney said.
The suit seeks to certify a class of more than 5,000 children, and specifically targets Marion, Scott, and Lake counties and seeks legal recognition that would require the appointment of legal counsel to children in Child in Need of Services and Termination of Parental Rights cases.
“It’s very rare that any child is appointed a lawyer to represent the child in a proceeding about where that child is going to live, where they’re going to school, whether they’re going to be separated from their siblings,” DeLaney said.
Representatives from The Marion County Public Defenders Agency say if the suit is successful, they would be on board for representing children in future cases.
“The children do deserve to have a voice and they deserve to have due process. Because this does impact their liberty,” Chief Counsel Ann Sutton said.
Sutton says the current process the state uses includes the appointment “guardians ad litem” special advocates to represent for children involved in CHINS and TPR proceedings but stops short of legal representation.
“At the outset of these cases the goal is always reunification and that is the one voice that is many times missing,” she said.
In response to the lawsuit, a spokesperson from the Attorney General’s Office said they are “conducting a review to determine if the state plays any role in this litigation.”