After over a decade-long legal battle, the Finnegan family finally has
a clear name and a little peace of mind. In 2015, the Pulaski County Department
of Child Services was found to have falsely prosecuted the Finnegans for
their daughter’s death and a federal jury awarded the family $31.3
million in damages. Although the State initially appealed the verdict,
Indiana has agreed to pay the Finnegans $25 million to settle the case.
DCS Falsely Accused Parents
In 2005, 14-year-old Jessica Salyer died in her Francesville home after
suffering from a fatal hemorrhage. Although the young girl’s death
was of no fault to her parents, Department of Child Services (“DCS”)
investigators suspected abuse. When emergency responders arrived, Jessica
had blood from her nose and mouth on her body but, when examined, experts
found nothing that would indicate her parents had harmed her in any way.
Despite these reports, DCS filed neglect charges and later a substantiation
report that said Jessica died from a skull fracture and internal hemorrhages
that were caused by physical abuse. DCS was able to use these charges
to remove the Finnegans’ other minor children from the home and
place them into foster care.
As it turns out, Jessica’s skull fracture was caused by her autopsy.
The Finnegans used every bit of evidence they had to try to clear their
name, including reports from medical experts that reported Jessica died
because of a drug interaction. Jessica had a life-long heart condition
that required her to take Coumadin, an anti-clotting medication. Shortly
before her death, Jessica’s Coumadin prescribed dosage had been
doubled, through no fault of her parents, and it was this error that caused
her fatal hemorrhage. Even with all the evidence pointing away from Jessica’s
parents, DCS continued to pursue false neglect charges against them.
The $31.3 million jury award was given as compensatory damages to the Finnegans
for violations of their First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights;
$12 million of those total damages were specifically awarded for conduct
by state actors that the jury found shocked the conscience. DCS was found
to have falsified evidence and, according to Special Judge Patrick Blankenship’s
Order out of Pulaski Circuit Court, “…unreasonably delayed
and unlawfully withheld findings consistent with the medical evidence,
causing irreparable and continuing harm to the family.”
The Finnegans were eventually allowed to remove their names from the Child
Protection Index, their other minor children were returned to them, and
they can finally rest somewhat as ease knowing their names are now cleared.
The ultimate damage this case caused to the family, though, is irreversible.
Neglect Isn’t Always as Black and White as You May Think
It seems unfathomable that this could happen to innocent parents, but the
reality of it is that a court’s primary concern will always be what’s
in the best interest of a child. If allegations of neglect or abuse are
suspected, the courts will take them seriously. Falsifying evidence is
a whole other story and this case is certainly not an example to lead
by, but, in general, Indiana’s law on neglect is considerably broad.
Ind. Code §31-33-5-1 states that a person who has reason to believe
that a child is a victim of child abuse or neglect shall make a report.
“Reason to believe” is defined by statute as evidence that,
if presented to individuals of similar background and training, would
cause the individual to believe that a child was abused or neglected.
That’s a fairly subjective standard, though.
Ind. Code §31-9-2-133 does take it a step further and defines the
criteria for a “victim of child abuse or neglect”. Most relevant
in Jessica’s case, the statute says the criteria is met if a child
is seriously endangered due to neglect or seriously endangered due to
injury by the act or omission of a parent. Doesn’t help much, does
it? That’s because a case of abuse or neglect isn’t always
black and white and each case can be vastly different from the next. Relying
on expert opinions from medical professionals in cases like these is crucial.
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