On Oct. 6, 2015, a federal jury in northern Indiana awarded $31.3 million to the Finnegan family of five in their case against the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) officials and an Indiana State Police detective. On Sept. 30, 2016, the same federal court denied the state’s motion to reduce the award, citing the jury’s careful consideration of overwhelming misbehavior.
As I testified in the first hearing: “The people empowered to protect against child abuse became the abusers.”
One of four Finnegan children, 14-year-old Jessica Salyer, died in her Francesville, Ind. home in December, 2005. But for the Finnegans, the heartbreak was only beginning. Almost immediately, a local DCS official threatened to launch “children in need of services” investigations of her three siblings because the parents declined the agency’s offer of grief counseling.
DCS suspicion fell on the Finnegans, despite the fact that emergency responders reported no sign of abuse or neglect. Experts who later examined Jessica’s body saw nothing suspicious. They said a more likely cause was related to Jessica’s anti-clotting medication, Coumadin, prescribed due to a heart condition she’d had since birth.
Nevertheless, on the very day Jessica died, DCS workers removed the other children from their home and took them to the Pulaski County office in Winamac. They questioned them for up to six hours and refused to allow the Finnegans to see their children after they came to collect them. They questioned the parents separately.
The Finnegans ultimately were charged with neglect, and their children were placed in foster care. DCS filed a “substantiation” in March 2007, stating Jessica had received inadequate medical care and her siblings were in danger. The agency claimed she died from physical abuse that caused a skull fracture and internal hemorrhages. The Finnegans were arrested and imprisoned.
The DCS case began to crumble after attorney Heather Kirkwood quickly found a prescription error. Jessica’s Coumadin dosage had been doubled shortly before her death due to medical malpractice, and the coroner subsequently ruled that error had caused her fatal hemorrhage. The skull fracture was found to have occurred during the autopsy.
Charges against the Finnegans eventually were dropped. Since the Finnegans’ alleged roles in Jessica’s death had been the sole cause for their removal, their children were reunited with them after nine months in foster care.
But DCS was undeterred. In doubling down on its abuse case, the agency falsified evidence and withheld conclusions about the medication mistake from its own experts.
In 2010, Special Judge Patrick Blankenship in Pulaski Circuit Court ordered the Finnegans’ names removed from the Child Protection Index. In a damning 71-page order, Blankenship blasted the agency for misstating conditions in the family home and the medical attention Jessica received. DCS also ignored volumes of proof the Finnegans provided in their defense, expert opinions about the cause of death and other supporting evidence.
“Because DCS did not consider any of this contrary information in substantiating physical abuse, the substantiation is arbitrary and capricious as a matter of law,” Blankenship wrote. “(I)t relied on information DCS knew to be incorrect. … For four years, DCS has unreasonably delayed and unlawfully withheld findings consistent with the medical evidence, causing irreparable and continuing harm to the family.”
Among the most egregious problems were brazen alterations of documents. For instance, a post-mortem report submitted to a DCS fatality review team said Jessica’s injuries were consistent with a fall, but it was altered by adding the word “not” before the conclusion.
Despite the large size of the award for damages, the Finnegan case has received only minimal national attention. My hope is that it will serve as a warning to all welfare departments about making uninvestigated charges against birth or foster parents.