The United States Supreme Court has long recognized the “fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.”1 This fundamental right to parent is why the Indiana Courts place the burden of proof on the Department of Child Services (“DCS”) when it comes to proving that a child is a child in need of services (“CHINS”). Specifically, our Indiana Supreme Court has found that DCS must prove three basic elements for a CHINS finding.2 Those elements are: (1) that the parent’s actions or inactions have seriously endangered the child; (2) that the child’s needs are unmet; and (3) that those needs are unlikely to be met without State coercion.3 But what happens if DCS fails to prove all three elements? Do the courts actually enforce this requirement? The Court of Appeals just recently dealt with these questions in In the Matter of A.R. v. Indiana Department of Child Services4 that is the topical coverage of this blog post.
In the Matter of A.R., the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s determination that the children were in fact CHINS because DCS failed to meet its burden. The relevant facts are as follows: In June of 2018, a Mother of four gave birth to her youngest child. The youngest child was found to have methamphetamine in its cord blood. When Mother was questioned about this, Mother claimed that she was “unsure” of how meth got into the youngest’s system. Upon further inquiry, it was found out that Mother was homeless and that she did not know where she was going to go when she left the hospital. The following day, Mother was required to submit to a drug test, which came back positive for methamphetamine. As a result, DCS took all four of Mother’s children away, alleging that they were Children in Need of Services, or CHINS.
After the children were taken, Mother began participating in DCS provided programs designed to help the individual become a better parent. Additionally, Mother was required to take drug tests in order to participate in supervised parenting time. DCS case workers reported that Mother had done an exceptional job in completing her programs, and that Mother had not failed a drug test since the initial drug test she took after giving birth. Furthermore, Mother sought out counseling on her own for her methamphetamine problem without any assistance from DCS. Lastly, Mother had secured employment and housing which was suitable for her children. At the final hearing, and despite all of Mother’s hard work, the trial court found the children to be CHINS.
In reversing the trial court’s decision, the Court of Appeals begins its decision by noting that the Indiana Supreme Court has established “three basic elements” that must be proven by DCS for a child to be found a CHINS. The Court of Appeals moves on to DCS’ arguments as to why the children are CHINS. DCS first argued that “coercive intervention” was necessary because Mother had a long history of drug use. The Court of Appeals dismisses this by noting all of the proactive steps that Mother has taken since the children were taken away. Specifically, the Court states that “courts ‘should consider the family’s condition not just when the case was filed, but also when it is heard.’” Furthermore, the Court notes that doing so “avoids punishing parents for past mistakes when they have already corrected them.” Second, DCS argued that coercive intervention was necessary to ensure Mother maintained sobriety. The Court again dismisses this, stating that “mere cause for concern” is not “the touchstone of a CHINS determination.” Furthermore, the Court points out that “an unspecified concern about what might happen in the future is insufficient in itself to carry the State’s burden of proof.” As such, the Court concluded that DCS failed to meet its burden of proof and present sufficient evidence for a CHINS finding.
Unfortunately, cases like these occur, which is why skilled trial counsel is needed in defending against a CHINS case and the Court of Appeals stands to correct such adjudications not supported by the evidence through appellate counsel. Finding yourself in the middle of a CHINS proceeding can be intimidating and frustrating. Thus, advocating your legal rights and fighting for your children in such a situation begins with retaining skilled trial counsel, and if necessary later, appellate counsel. Such counsel will know the status of developments in the caselaw, like this case, to protect you. Also, learning about the law and seeking your right to counsel is the key to protecting your right as a parent, as well as being an engaged citizen in our participatory system of government. This blog post on a key new case is written by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who handle all aspects of CHINS proceedings throughout the state. This blog is written for educational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.