Indiana Court Reinstates Case Against Child Agency

     INDIANAPOLIS (CN) — The Indiana Court of Appeals revived state Department of Child Services caseworkers’ claims that the agency is understaffed, to the detriment of Hoosier State kids.      In a July 2015 lawsuit, caseworkers alleged DCS ignores Indiana state law by overloading caseworkers to the point that the safety and welfare of the children they served could be endangered.     Lead plaintiff Mary Price, representing a class of Indiana DCS caseworkers, said in the complaint that her caseload at the time was about 43 children, although by Indiana law it should never exceed 17.     The lawsuit also claimed Price and other DCS caseworkers regularly worked more than 40 hours per week to keep up with their caseloads and maintain minimum standards of service.     Earlier this year, a trial court in Marion County, Ind., found in favor of DCS’ contention that the claims of Price and the other caseworkers could be satisfied through the Indiana civil service complaint procedure.     The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which represents the caseworkers, appealed the trial court’s dismissal.     On Tuesday, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court.     “We agree with Price that the matter before us concerns a systemic deficiency which is not unique to her but is experienced by hundreds of case workers in Indiana,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote for the majority.     Riley later added, “The systemic challenge brought by Price falls outside the boundaries of this administrative appeals procedure and must be addressed by the judicial system.”     According to the ruling, the caseload maximums defined by state law “are not an aspirational goal but are a clear and definite number to attain.”     “Accordingly, as [the law] imposes a clear, absolute, and imperative duty on DCS to comply with maximum caseload standards … no administrative remedy is available to address this systemic violation of Indiana law,” Riley wrote.     Judge James Kirsch dissented in part, saying that the trial court was “correct in concluding that the appellant had an adequate remedy under the Indiana Civil Service Complaint procedure which she has failed to exhaust.”     The ACLU of Indiana called Tuesday’s decision a “victory” for DCS caseworkers.     “The vital societal importance of the services provided by DCS case managers cannot be overestimated,” Ken Falk, ACLU of Indiana legal director, said in a statement. “I am happy that we will be given the opportunity to demonstrate to the trial court that the caseload standards that are essential for the case managers to perform their jobs are not being met.”

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Unfit Voters Registered at Polls, Minnesotans Says

     ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — A political gadfly sued Minnesota last week, claiming its secretary of state is ignoring court-ordered disenfranchisement of felons, the mentally handicapped and noncitizens.     Kirk Stensrud, a one-term Republican member of the statehouse from 2011 to 2013, and the Minnesota Voters Alliance brought the 113-page petition in Ramsey County District Court on Oct. 4. Ramsey is the home of the state capital, St. Paul.     Stensrud claims that voting officials are notified of the ineligibility of every felon and noncitizen in the state, but routinely disregard the court-ordered restrictions and let them vote anyway.     The Minnesota Voters Alliance claims on its website that there are two ways election officials let ineligible people vote on Election Day. Felons and other ineligible people can register and vote on site because election officials do not check the restriction lists generated by state courts. And election officials permit “self-certification,” meaning that any felon on the poll roster can vote if he swears he is eligible.     “Without any statutory basis or authority, the Minnesota secretary of state allows ineligible persons, those who have court-restricted voting rights, to vote if they simply ‘swear’ they are eligible,” the alliance’s director Andrew Cilek says.     “These continuing wrongful acts exceed the clear limits that the Minnesota Constitution places on election officials. They violate our state’s statutes and defy the unequivocal court orders that direct election officials to withhold ballots from certain individuals, including convicted felons.”     Stensrud and the alliance’s new filing comes just a week after the Minnesota Supreme Court dismissed a similar petition seeking original jurisdiction.     A spokesman for the Secretary of State Steve Simon said his office does not comment on pending litigation.     “However,” spokesman Ryan Furlong said in an email, “Minnesota has a proud and bipartisan 40-year history of same-day voter registration that has led to some of the highest turnout in the nation, and we don’t expect that to change.”     Minnesota is one of 13 states that allow Election Day registration and voting.     Stensrud is represented by Erick Kaardal, with Mohrman, Kaardal & Erickson, in Minneapolis.

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$31M to Family Falsely Accused of Killing Child

     SOUTH BEND, Ind. (CN) — Five members of an Indiana family that was torn apart by a child’s death and unsubstantiated accusations of abuse and neglect are entitled to a $31.35 million judgment against Indiana Department of Child Services employees who falsely accused the parents of killing their child.     The jury award is the result of 2008 lawsuit stemming from the sudden death of 14-year-old Francesville, Ind., resident Jessica Salyer.     Salyer suffered from several major medical issues, including congenital heart disease and a seizure disorder. At the time of her death in 2005, Salyer lived with her mother, step-father, brother and two sisters.     Although the Pulaski County coroner and numerous state and national medical experts ruled that Salyer died as result of “major prescriptive error,” errors in the dosages and combinations of drugs she took for her chronic medical conditions as well from the conditions themselves, five Indiana DCS employees insisted that the girl suffered a fatal beating on the day of her death and a skull fracture that had been inflicted within 24 hours of her death.     Despite an abundance of medical evidence to the contrary, the child-welfare workers accused Salyer’s mother and step-father, Lynette and Roman Finnegan, of beating the girl to death and told Salyer’s siblings that their sister died an “excruciating” death at the hands of one or both of their parents, the lawsuit claimed. The DCS employees also told the Finnegan’s 18-year-old son that Lynette Finnegan blamed him for his sister’s death.     According to the lawsuit, in the immediate aftermath of Salyer’s death, DCS employees then removed the two sisters, both minors, to foster homes and subjected them to nine months of “improper investigative therapy” and police interrogations.     Before the ordeal was over, the Finnegans were arrested on neglect charges (later dropped), Salyer’s body had been exhumed, family breadwinner Roman Finnegan, a 15-year veteran of the Indiana Department of Corrections, had lost his job, and the family lost their home and possessions.     After an emotionally-charged 15-day trial in 2015, a jury handed down the $31.35 million judgment.     In their recent motion to alter the award, the DCS argued, “The jury improperly awarded damages at an emotional level based solely on the tragedy of Jessica’s death. Even [the family] implicitly recognizes [that] Jessica’s untimely death was the actual loss that created all of their pain and suffering.”     But in a 17-page ruling denying the DCS motion, U.S. District Court judge Rudy Lozano disagreed.     “This view is myopic,” Lozano wrote. “When considering the record in its entirety, the Court finds that it is more likely the jury believed the actions of the DCS defendants compounded that loss and caused the family significant additional trauma at a time when they were most vulnerable and fragile.”     Lozano added, “The jury was capable of sifting through such evidence and using their own sound judgment to determine what impact the actions of each . . . defendant had on each plaintiff. The evidence establishes harrowing injuries of almost unfathomable magnitude.     “The Court is convinced that the compensatory damages awards in this case were rationally connected to the evidence presented and were not, as the state defendants suggest, simply a product of passion or prejudice.”

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Health Care Firm Hired Swindler for Elder Care

     PAINESVILLE, Ohio (CN) — A home health care agency hired a notorious con artist to provide in-home independent living services, an elderly woman claims in court.     According to plaintiff Rosa Rideout, Nightingale Home Support and Care Inc. did not conduct a background check before hiring Tonya Weiss, a woman whose criminal history of stealing from the elderly dates back to the 1960s. Now in her 70s, Weiss has served time in jails and state and federal prisons in Ohio and Florida, the Sept. 22 complaint states.     A story published in the Columbus Dispatch in 2012 — just before Weiss was about to serve her most recent three-year prison term — estimates that in the six decades she has been operating her various scams, she has stolen millions of dollars from elderly men and women.     In fact, Weiss’ criminal background is so nefarious that even a “simple Google search” would have turned up enough information to keep Nightingale Home Support from hiring her, Rideout claims.     Because of her reputation for befriending and stealing from elderly men, authorities have dubbed Weiss “The Sweetheart Swindler.” Her victims have included elderly men looking for romance, as well as elderly men and women who were sick, grieving the death of a loved one or simply looking for companionship, according to The Columbus Dispatch.     The same article reports that Weiss’ high-profile reputation as a swindler is so well-known that law enforcement officials use recordings of her voice, taken during a past investigation, as part of their elder-abuse training programs.     Rideout says that while Weiss worked in her home, she stole many of Rideout’s personal and family belongings, transferred property titles, and took “unauthorized expenditures” from her bank account.     Rideout is suing Nightingale Home Support in the Court of Common Pleas for Lake County, Ohio, for negligent hiring and supervision.     Rideout is represented by Mark Abramowitz from the DiCello Law Firm in Mentor, Ohio.     Nightingale Home Support Inc., based in Painesville, Ohio, did not respond to a phone call requesting comment.

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Class Says Michigan Is Failing Detroit Students

     DETROIT (CN) – A federal class action claims the state of Michigan is violating the constitutional rights of students in Detroit’s public schools by failing to provide them with adequate instruction or tools to acquire basic literacy.     In a complaint filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Michigan, parents and students of the city’s public school system say that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the state’s board of education have shown a complete lack of interest in Detroit’s five lowest performing schools and the black children from low-income families who have to attend them.     This disinterest and the resulting lack of investment in the troubled schools is denying young black students “the most basic building block of education,” the complaint says.     The plaintiffs claim that through policy and in practice, Michigan persistently and deliberately deprives disadvantaged black students of a “fighting chance” to succeed, by failing to provide them with adequate, up-to-date instructional materials, appropriately-trained teaching staff, and safe school buildings.     The 136-page complaint cites student achievement data compiled by the state, and separately, by the nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit, that show literacy proficiency rates in Detroit’s worst performing schools hovers near zero in nearly all subject area.     Michigan’s statewide accountability system rates these five schools one, two, four, and six, the complaint says, while Excellent Schools Detroit has assigned the schools represented in the lawsuit grades “F” and “D.”     In one of the five schools, the plaintiffs claim, third-graders have a proficiency score of 4.2% on Michigan’s 2015-16 English assessment test, compared with 46.0% of third-graders statewide.     In the same school, the complaint alleges, the only books third-graders had access to were picture books—until their teacher bought other books with money out of her own pocket—halfway through the school year, the complaint says.     Similarly, at a charter school within the district, only 9.5% of third-grade students scored proficient in English, as compared to 46.0% of third-graders statewide, the complaint adds.     The plaintiffs say that in addition to being denied proper instructional materials, students are also forced to try to learn in grossly over-crowded classrooms due to the low-performing schools having an insufficient number of teachers.     In some cases, they say, these classes are left in the hands of people who do not have the minimum state requirements to teach — including an eighth-grader who was pressed into teaching seventh and eighth grade math classes for a month because no adult teacher was available.     Photographs incorporated into the complaint show buckets placed in school hallways to catch rainwater, evidence of rodent and insect infestations, and non-functioning drinking fountains, and toilets sealed up with plastic trash bags.     According to the complaint, many school restrooms lack soap and toilet paper.     The dire conditions described in the complaint include classrooms and school buildings that are inadequately heated during the winter and are too hot in the spring and early fall because of malfunctioning air conditioning.     In addition, the plaintiffs say, the playground of one elementary school is so poorly maintained and secured that the children who are forced use it routinely injure themselves and tear their clothing on jagged edges on the grounds, and play on grounds strewn with spent bullets, used condoms and sex toys, and dead vermin.     At a news conference on Wednesday, plaintiff attorney Mark Rosenbaum said, “For the last 15 years, the state has run the Detroit schools, has run them into the ground.”     “Literacy,” Rosenbaum says, “is the cornerstone of all education; it is the cornerstone of our democracy. Absent literacy, a child has no way to obtain knowledge, communicate with the world, or participate in the institutions and activities of citizenship.”     Co-counsel Kathryn Eidman said attorneys are focusing on Detroit because it has the lowest proficiency rates of any large urban school district in the U.S.     The state took over management of the Detroit Public Schools, now official     Since 2009, a series of emergency managers, first appointed by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and then, by Gov. Snyder, have overseen the day-to-day operation of the district.     Despite the oversight, however, the school district’s financial problems have worsened, prompting state lawmakers to pass a sweeping $617 million package in June intended to once again prop the school system up and fund a series of reforms.     The plaintiffs want the state to take the additional step of monitoring “conditions that deny access to literacy,” and provide appropriate intervention and support.     John Austin, president of the Michigan Department of Education, told the Detroit Free Press he believes that board should not have been named as a defendant in the case because it has repeatedly sought increased education funding from the governor and the state Legislature.     The board, Austin explained, has no power to approve such funding.     “It’s the Legislature that holds the purse strings, and the governor who proposes budgets,” he said.     A spokesman for Gov. Snyder declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did Chrystal Wilson, spokeswoman for the Detroit Public Schools Community District.     In addition to Rosenbaum and Eidman and their legal team from the Los Angeles-based Public Counsel, the plaintiffs are represented by Michael Kelley, of Sidley Austin LLP in Los Angeles; Jennifer Wheeler, of Sidley Austin LLP in Chicago; Bruce Miller, of Miller Cohen PLC in Detroit; Evan Caminker, of the University of Michigan Law School; and Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law.

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ACLU Wants Feds to Keep Out of Ohio Database

     (CN) — The American Civil Liberties Union urged Ohio to deny the FBI access to the state’s law-enforcement database, voicing privacy concerns over facial-recognition technology.     Public records requests reportedly revealed email communications between the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and the FBI regarding access to the state’s police records.     The ACLU of Ohio said in a letter sent Monday to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine that it is concerned about the FBI’s potential ability to access the state’s facial-recognition data.     Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for ACLU of Ohio, says in the letter that letting the FBI into the state database, which is called OHLEG, would give the federal government access to millions of photographs from sources that include drivers’ licenses and criminal mug shots.     Daniels raises concerns about the FBI’s allegedly questionable uses of face-recognition technology and its sometimes sloppy regard for individual privacy.     Both issues are described in detail in a report that the U.S. Office of Government Accountability delivered to the Senate earlier this year.     The 82-page report explores the FBI’s increasing use of face-recognition technology and reveals how the agency has fallen short in terms of privacy and accuracy.     The issues highlighted in the report include failure to adequately determine error rates, failure to test the reliability and accuracy of state databases, nonexistent and outdated privacy policies, lack of audits and transparency, and inadequate notice to the public regarding FBI use of facial-recognition technology.     In the ACLU’s letter to DeWine, Daniels questioned “why there should be any consideration to give the FBI even more ability to access personal information—with minimum security and oversight—and with no opportunity for public input.”     “The FBI’s ongoing track record of widespread mass surveillance and blatant disregard for laws and policies meant to protect our privacy should, at the very minimum, give Ohio pause,” Daniels wrote. “At the very least, this issue should be discussed around the state so all Ohioans have an opportunity to weigh in on this rapidly-moving expansion of data sharing.”     According to the Government Accountability Office report, the FBI now has access to over 30 million images–most of which are of persons who have no criminal record–and has spent $55 million on face recognition technology since 2010.     It can tap into databases in Florida, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Texas, and Arkansas and is currently working with eight additional states to obtain database access for face-recognition searches.     The report says that an additional 24 states are interested in connecting to the FBI’s database.     A spokesman for the Ohio attorney general told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the FBI has not submitted any formal request to get access to OHLEG, but has inquired about it.     “To describe it as negotiations would be a mischaracterization,” the spokesman said. “There have been some discussions, but we don’t have a formal ask.”

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Family Claims Reporter Set Up Fatal Shootout

     (CN) – The family of an Indiana man shot and killed by bail recovery agents claim in court that a reporter and the news agency she worked for colluded with the bounty hunters to bring about the 2014 fatal shootout at the family’s home.     As recounted in the complaint filed in the South Bend, Indiana Federal Court, the events that transpired on Aug. 25, 2014 stemmed from Gary Helman’s arrest a year earlier on charges of battery and resisting law enforcement.     Following Helman’s arrest, his mother secured a $25,000 bond for his release. Helman later skipped out on the bond, and its underwriter and local agent hired three bounty hunters to collect.     Acting on information given to them by local reporter Stacey Staley, the three bail recovery agents went to Atta Belle Helman’s home and tried to serve a warrant to her son for failure to appear in court.     According to the complaint, Helman had a history of turbulent relations with law enforcement, and in 2009 was involved in a nine-hour standoff with the Indiana State Police.     Staley had reported on some of these incidents in the past.     Helman’s mother and twin brother Larry, who was wounded in the same incident in which his brother died, claims Staley and her employer, The Papers Inc., were motivated to give the bounty hunters the family’s address by a hunger for publicity and the hope of getting exclusive live coverage of what would likely be a violent confrontation.     They say Staley used her position as a reporter and her familiarity with Gary Helman’s history to gather intelligence on behalf of the bounty hunters.     The family claims Staley befriended Helman and set up a supposed interview with him at his mother’s home, all as a pretext for gathering information for the bounty hunters.     “The conspiracy had the chief goals [of] bringing about publicity and financial windfalls which were expected to benefit all of the defendants at the expense of the rights and liberties of the Helman family,” the complaint states.     The Helmans claim Staley left the home after the interview and went immediately to the bounty hunters, telling them the number of occupants inside the home, their locations inside the house, and descriptions of the occupants’ clothing.     She then waited near the home with “great anticipation to observe the violent confrontation begin,” the complaint says.     It then goes on to describe the chaotic moments that followed. As described in the complaint, the bounty hunters confronted Larry Helman on the back porch of the home, and then began screaming and violently beating on the front and back doors before forcing their way inside.     Once inside they attacked Gary Helman and his mother, resulting in an “immediate and fully anticipated gun fight,” the complaint says.     Gary Helman, was shot multiple times but returned fire before he died, wounding bounty hunter Tadd Martin.     Larry Helman was shot in the back but survived. The complaint describes how Martin then exited and retreated from the home while Atta Helman “cried hysterically over the shooting of her twin boys in her own home.”     The family says before the confrontation, local police tried to dissuade the bounty hunters from carrying out their plan to invade the Helman home, warning them that such a confrontation would be dangerous, and that they should stand down to avoid the possibility of violence.     The Helmans are seeking unspecified damages on claims the defendants violated their the Fourth, Fifth and Fifteenth Amendment rights. In addition they assert claims of failure to protect, supervisor liability, and conspiracy to interfere with civil rights.     Atta Belle Helman and Larry Helman are represented by Michael Misch of Anderson Agostino & Keller, and attorney Anthony Rose, all of South Bend.     In addition to Staley and The Papers Inc., the seven other named defendants are Barnett’s Bail Bonds Inc.; its owners, Michael Barnett and Myra Barnett; Lexington National Insurance Corporation; and bail recovery agents Tadd Martin, Daniel Foster and Michael Thomas.     According to a 2014 article in The Goshen News newspaper, Staley acknowledged that she had relayed information to the bounty hunters after concluding her interview at the Helman home. She resigned her position with The Papers Inc. shortly after the 2014 shootout. In a story published about Staley’s resignation, ABC 57News reported that “Many have questioned her ethics as a journalist after police named her as an informant in the recent situation where bounty hunters staked out the home and later killed Gary Helman.”     The Papers Inc. General Manager Ron Baumgartner was unavailable for comment.

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Courthouse Shooter Had |Long Criminal History

     (CN) – Larry Darnell Gordon, the prisoner who killed two bailiffs and wounded two other persons at the Berrien County Courthouse on July 11, had a long criminal history, according to court documents.     Gordon was handcuffed and being removed from a third floor courtroom, shortly after 2 p.m. on July 11 when he managed to grab a deputy sheriff’s gun.     In the pandemonium that followed, Gordon killed the two court bailiffs and briefly held eight hostages.     During the melee, he also wounded the deputy sheriff and a bystander. Responding officers then shot and killed Gordon.     Although Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey reported that Gordon was non-combative and fairly cooperative while in custody, he nevertheless had a long criminal history that included two federal convictions for possession of a pipe bomb, as well as convictions for possession of a handgun, larceny, and fleeing and eluding authorities.     Gordon had served time in federal and state prisons.     In April, police went to Gordon’s home in Coloma, Mich., to investigate charges of domestic violence and found a 17-year-old girl in a backyard shed on the property.     Police allege that Gordon, 44, had been holding the girl against her will, giving her methamphetamine in exchange for sex, and assaulting her with weapons and strangulation. Allegedly, Gordon also recorded their sexual activity.     Following Gordon’s April arrest, police charged him with five counts of sexual conduct in the first degree, kidnapping, three counts of producing child sexually-abusive material, possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver, several assault counts, plus resisting law enforcement.     Had Gordon been convicted on these charges, he could have been sentenced to anywhere from 18 to 62 years in prison.     In addition to his criminal activities, Gordon was a regular classroom volunteer at his daughter’s elementary school in Watervliet, Mich.     When questioned by Grand Rapids ABC-affiliate WZZM TV, Watervliet Superintendent Kevin Schooley said that background checks on Gordon apparently didn’t turn up any violent crimes.     The school principal explained that classroom volunteers are not fingerprinted.     In a three-page, handwritten letter found in Gordon’s cell after the shootings, Gordon told his ex-wife that he had deep regret for “all the stuff” he put his family through, but denied the charges against him. Gordon repeatedly scribbled “I’m sorry” in the upper and lower margins.     “I probably won’t ever see you again,” Gordon wrote, “but I guess I’ll die trying.” “They want to send me away for the rest of my life. That’s not living. I’m not going to do it.”

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Courthouse Shooter Was Cuffed, Sheriff Says

     ST. JOSEPH, Mich. (CN) — The inmate who killed two Michigan court bailiffs after wresting away an officer’s gun was handcuffed at the time, the local sheriff said Tuesday.     Contradicting the statement he gave after the deadly scuffle Monday, Sheriff Paul Bailey said inmate Larry Darnell Gordon had his hands cuffed in front of him.     The shooting at the Berrien County Courthouse took place around 2:25 p.m. Monday afternoon, as deputy sheriff James Atterberry Jr. and a bailiff escorted Gordon from a holding cell to a courtroom.     Gordon, who was in custody on charges of criminal sexual conduct, is said to have attacked Atterberry in a hallway on the way to the courtroom, wresting control of the deputy’s gun.     After shooting Atterberry in the arm, Gordon then shot and killed court bailiffs Joe Zangaro, 61, and Ronald Kienzle, 63.     Sheriff Bailey said Gordon then went into the back area of a courtroom and took several hostages from among court personnel and civilians who were in the immediate vicinity.     The hostage situation lasted approximately five minutes before two other court bailiffs shot and killed Gordon.     A civilian caught in the fray was shot as well but survived.     Bailey had explained Monday that the decision to handcuffs detainees is made on a case-by-case basis.     Although being held on several felony charges, Gordon “gave no indication of violence while in jail,” Bailey said Monday.     Zangaro and Kienzle were 30-year law-enforcement veterans. Zangaro was head of courthouse security.     Gordon was a 45-year-old white man from nearby Coloma, Michigan.     Bailey described Zangaro and Kienzle as “loving guys” who were well-respected.     Speaking for all county officers, Bradley said, “Our hearts are torn apart.”     Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder traveled to St. Joseph in the aftermath of the shootings and urged all Michiganders to “be supportive of law enforcement [officers] and their families.”     Berrien County sits on the southwestern corner of Michigan, at the Indiana border.

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