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 E.Y.;4 this important case is the focus of this blog and one you need to know and understand if you are a parent and ultimately wind up in a DCS investigation.
In the Matter of E.Y., the Indiana Court of Appeals highlighted the importance of proving all the above-named factors before making a CHINS determination. The relevant facts are as follows. Mother and Father had been in a relationship for seven years, and had one child together, namely E.Y. Also living with Mother and Father were Mother’s three older children from a previous marriage. The three older children considered Father to be their biological Father. The oldest child, Am.M., began demonstrating behavioral problems beginning in 2017. Father and Mother took her to see a therapist. Am.M. told the therapist that there was “a great deal of domestic violence in the home.” The therapist then contacted DCS to report the problem. A DCS caseworker went to the home, and after interviewing the parents and children, did not find anything “concerning or noteworthy.” Nevertheless, DCS filed a petition to find the child to be a CHINS.
At the trial, Mother and Father both testified that no domestic violence had ever occurred in their house. Furthermore, Father had never been convicted of any crime, especially a crime of domestic violence. Despite the lack of evidence for a CHINS finding, Father was willing “to do anything to reunite his family.” The trial court eventually found that the children were CHINS, and Father appealed. On appeal, the Court of Appeals noted the importance of establishing all three elements before making a CHINS finding. Specifically, the Court stated that a finding that the children’s needs would go unmet absent State intervention may be the “most critical” element to prove. The reasoning is that “the last element guards against unwarranted State interference in family life.” The Court of Appeals ultimately reversed the trial court’s determination, stating “[w]hen coercion is not necessary, the State may not intrude into a family’s life.”
Unfortunately, cases like these are not rare. These types of cases happen with frequency and happen to ordinary people. Finding yourself in the middle of a CHINS proceeding can be intimidating, as well as frustrating. Fighting for your rights against a big governmental organization like DCS can often lead to a plethora of adverse consequences if you do not know your rights. Knowing the status of developments in the law 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 was written by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who deal with all aspects of CHINS proceedings throughout the state. Knowing the law is a key to be an engaged citizen. Having counsel current on the latest developments in family law provides you with the best defense. This blog is written for educational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.