All parents have the fundamental right to the care, custody, and control of their child(ren).1 Basically, this means parents can raise their children in their own way--even if most people disagree with their style. While this is a fundamental constitutional right, it is not absolute. When a parent presents a risk or danger to a child’s physical or emotional wellbeing, DCS may file a Children in Need of Services (CHINS) case and the Court opens a CHINS case. The CHINS process is designed to allow an investigation into suspected abuse and neglect and provide the parents (and children) with services to correct the parental shortfalls that led to the CHINS filing in the first place. This blog addresses a key legal point in a new case decided by the Court of Appeals which reinforces that just because one parent is neglectful, does not mean the other parent should not have custody and the case be dismissed without a CHINS finding.
This is a subtle point, but skilled trial counsel may make this point in the evidence if this is your case, and if the children are still adjudicated CHINS, the case reversed on appeal to protect the innocent parent’s fundamental rights. Specifically, the Indiana Court of Appeals recently overturned a trial court’s finding that two minor children were CHINS.2 The facts of the case began in 2014 in North Carolina, where Mother and Father were raising their five children together and had an open child services case. Sometime in 2017, Mother moved to Indiana with two of the five children, A.R. and H.R., while Father remained in North Carolina. After only a month of living in Indiana, reports of Mother’s drug use and inappropriate sexual behavior surfaced, resulting in the Indiana DCS filing a CHINS petition with the Court.
In addition to the allegations against Mother, the Indiana CHINS petition stated that “[Father] . . . has not successfully demonstrated an ability and willingness to appropriately parent the children.” Father was later informed of the upcoming Indiana court date and attended same, asking that the children be placed in his custody and the CHINS case be closed because court intervention was not necessary to ensure their well-being; Father could take care of his children. Father’s request was denied, and the trial court found that the two children were, in fact, CHINS, then placing them in foster care. Based on strong evidence Father’s trial counsel placed in the trial court record, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed this finding or decision of the CHINS court, ruling the State did not prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the children were CHINS. This adjudication thus violated Father’s fundamental right by unnecessary State (DCS) interference with Father’s right to raise his children. Mother’s neglect was not attributable to father to allow jurisdiction for the CHINS case to proceed to a CHINS fact-finding. The CHINS court should have given father custody and closed the case.
In this case, the Indiana Court of Appeals pointed out several key facts evidencing Father taking all necessary steps to be a loving and supporting parent. Father drove from North Carolina to Indiana at least seven times to attend CHINS hearings. The two children, A.R. and H.R. expressed to DCS officials, case workers, and foster parents their love for their Father and their desire to live with him. Additionally, North Carolina social workers informed Indiana social workers that there were no immediate concerns with Father, and he was actively engaged in services, completing a substance abuse assessment (based on a prior North Carolina case). In fact, even the witnesses called by DCS supported the placement of the two children with Father. Nevertheless, the CHINS court adjudicated the children CHINS and placed them in foster care. The Court of Appeals found based on these facts—the lack of evidence provided by the State for CHINS—such that the two children could not be adjudicated CHINS and reversed the case.
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.