Caught on camera: State worker accused of distracted driving after removing kids from dangerous home

A child took photos of a DCS worker using a cell phone behind the wheel.
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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - The Indiana Department of Child Services removed two children from their home to protect them for possible abuse. Those kids say what happened next put them in even greater danger - and they took pictures to prove it.

The photos, exposed by 13 Investigates, have triggered a state investigation, and DCS is now trying to determine if one of its employees jeopardized child safety by violating department policy and state law.

“It is concerning and we’re taking this very seriously,” DCS deputy communications director James Wide told WTHR. “Anything that’s done to take away from child safety is against policy.”

Scary day

The incident began July 13, when DCS sent one of its case managers to a home on the west side of Indianapolis. After investigating allegations against a woman who lived there, the case worker decided to remove two children and place them into temporary foster care.

The children - who are not being identified by WTHR - each grabbed a pillow and blanket and got in the back seat of the state worker’s car for a half-hour ride to a DCS facility across town. The 11- and 13-year-old siblings told Eyewitness News they were sad to leave home and depressed to learn DCS would not immediately place them with relatives, who had offered to take custody.

The children say the DCS worker who took them from their home was using a cell phone while driving.
The children say the DCS worker who took them from their home was using a cell phone while driving.

“It was really hard and two police cars showed up,” one of the children explained. “We didn’t really have a chance to say goodbye. It was kind of scary.”

The drive proved to be scary, as well. The children say after leaving their home, the DCS case manager soon pulled out her smartphone and used it -- while driving -- for most of the ride.

“She was on her phone pretty much the whole time,” one of the kids told 13 Investigates.

“Yeah, all you hear about on TV is ‘Don’t text and drive,’ but she didn’t really put her phone down the whole time,” added her teenage brother. “It's not good at all. I mean, if you want to keep whoever is in the back seat or a passenger safe, you want to keep your eyes on the road at all times.”

Feeling anxious, the children took out their own cellphones to document the state worker’s distracted driving. They took several photos and sent them to their family members, along with a text message:

“This lady keeps on texting and driving we need them cops back here.”

“It bothers me that my niece and nephew were in the car with her, and she was jeopardizing their safety,” said Pete Haynes, who received the photos while the kids were still in the backseat. “Her focus is on that phone – not what’s going on around her and not worrying about the kids behind her. It’s just wrong. She’s in a position of power and authority, so she should have known better.”

“Can you put your phone away and drive please?”

The pictures show a woman in the driver’s seat with both hands on her smartphone. They appear to show her looking up contacts, making a phone call, scanning her email and replying to an email -- all while driving on the highway. Outside the car, heavy traffic appears to be moving slowly. In at least one of the photos, brake lights are visible as nearby vehicles appear to be slowing down.

The children told WTHR the state worker was not only using her cell phone, but simultaneously holding a pen in her hand and writing in a notebook on her lap while driving on some stretches of the highway. They said, at times, the DCS employee used her elbows and a knee to drive while her hands were off the wheel.

“I was thinking we were going to be in a crash and one of those kids you hear about dying while in DCS,” the 11-year-old said.

“She was swerving a little bit, so I reached over this like and grabbed my sister’s hand, and I clenched her right here,” her brother said, showing how he held onto his sister’s wrist. “I asked [the worker] one time, “Can you put your phone away and drive please?” and she was like, “Well, if you want to go somewhere for tonight, I got to be on my phone to do stuff for you guys.”

“That was just wrong on all levels,” said the kids’ uncle. “I think it needs to be properly investigated. Something needs to be done about it because she can't be doing that.”

“When you work with kids like that, you take an oath to protect them,” agreed the children’s aunt. “They took the kids from a dangerous situation and put them into one that could be fatal.”

National data shows more than 3,000 people die and 400,000 are injured annually due to distracted driving crashes in the US.

Breaking the law?

State law says a person may not use a telecommunications device to type, transmit or read a text message or e-mail message while operating a moving motor vehicle.

Indiana State Police say the law can be a difficult one to enforce, but state troopers are still on the lookout.

“It’s definitely a concern because any time somebody’s not paying attention to what they’re doing, we know that driving conditions can change in a split second, and if you’re not paying attention then you’re going to either give yourself less time to react or you’re going to crash,” said ISP Sgt. John Perrine.

Indiana has additional policies that apply to state workers. All state employees must sign an “Information Resources User Agreement” that dictates how workers use state equipment such as computers and cellphones. The agreement states cellphone use is not allowed while operating a motor vehicle.

“State rules clearly prohibit use of devices while driving,” said Wide, speaking on behalf of DCS. Asked to comment on the photographs, he said the agency is concerned.

“That can't be acceptable. There is clearly a phone being used. If that phone is being used while the vehicle is being operated, then that should be a violation,” he said. “Anything that's going to take away from child safety is against [state] policy.”

Wide told 13 Investigates DCS is grateful to have the children’s pictures and has launched an internal investigation. After obtaining the photos from WTHR, he said the department is also considering strengthening its own distracted driving policy for DCS employees.

“It is a big deal because … at the foundation is child safety, so if there's a child that's unsafe because of distracted driving, that's serious,” he said.

Contacted Monday morning by phone, the DCS worker who transported the children told 13 Investigates she had no comment.

Asked if she would look at the photos to confirm whether she is the driver pictured, the state employee told WTHR that would not be in her best interest to identify herself in such a picture. She later said it could not possibly be her in the photos because she has a clean driving record and is “very conscientious about the safety of children.” She told WTHR she would call back after seeing the photos. So far, that hasn't happened.