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COA reverses termination over rule violation

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The Indiana Court of Appeals split today in its decision to reverse the termination of a mother's parental rights. The majority found the trial court abused its discretion in allowing the mother's trial counsel to withdraw her appearance under a local court rule.

In K.S. v. Marion County Department of Child Services and Child Advocates Inc., No. 49A02-0905-JV-384, mother K.S. claimed the trial court shouldn't have let her attorney withdraw on the date of the final hearing regarding K.S.'s rights to her daughter, A.S. The mother failed to participate in required counseling and classes and failed to appear at the termination hearings. K.S.'s attorney had sporadic contact with her and was unable to reach her by phone. K.S. had moved out of the state and her attorney was only able to reach her by e-mail. The attorney received an e-mail from K.S. asking what happened after she failed to appear at a previous hearing. In her reply, the attorney asked what K.S.'s intentions were and whether she'd be at the final hearing. The attorney also informed K.S. that she wouldn't be able to adequately represent her if K.S. didn't communicate or appear. The attorney never heard back from K.S.

The trial court granted the attorney's motion to withdraw under a Marion Circuit and Superior Court Civil Division rule. Three days later, K.S.'s parental rights were terminated.

Judges Edward Najam and Michael Barnes concluded the trial court abused its discretion in letting the attorney withdraw because she failed to provide written notice to her client or the court at least 10 days before she intended to withdraw.

The judges interpreted the local rule to mean that the good cause exception only applies to the requirement that the attorney's written letter of intent be filed with the court at least 10 days prior to trial, and the other obligations of the local rule imposed on the attorney must still be considered. DCS argued the phrase "or upon good cause shown" would allow the attorney to withdraw even without providing the written notice because she had good cause.

The attorney's e-mail to K.S. didn't constitute the written notice, nor did she file anything with the trial court. K.S.'s rights were prejudiced by the noncompliance with the local rule, wrote Judge Najam, so the majority reversed the trial court, vacated the termination order, and remanded for further proceedings.

"If Mother's attorney complies with the local rule and Mother again fails to appear in person or fails to take the steps necessary to obtain new counsel within a reasonable time, the trial court may reinstate the termination order vacated by this decision," he wrote.

Judge James Kirsch dissented, arguing K.S. put her attorney and the trial court in an untenable position. The attorney couldn't give 10 days notice of her intent to withdraw because she didn't have that intent until K.S. failed to appear at the hearing. Under these circumstances, good cause was shown for not filing the letter.

"Had the trial court denied the request to withdraw and continued with the hearing, the attorney would have sat there as a potted plant, and the result would have been exactly the same as it is now - Mother's parental rights would have been terminated," he wrote.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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