COA reverses termination of father's rights

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a trial court order terminating the parental rights of a father, finding the trial court erred when it relied on an independent investigation to end his rights without giving the father a chance to view or respond to the investigation.

In In Re: The Matter of the Termination of the Parent-Child Relationship of S.F. and J.F., Michael Farley v. Allen County Child Services, No. 02A03-0707-JV-306, the appellate court was asked to decide whether Farley was denied due process when he was not allowed to respond to an independent investigation ordered by the trial court.

In July 2006, the Allen County Department of Child Services filed a petition to terminate Farley's parental rights of S.F. and J.F. because he had allegedly failed to maintain suitable living conditions. A trial was conducted in December 2006 on the matter; in February 2007, the trial court ordered an additional investigation of Farley's home by the Allen County Health Department. The court terminated Farley's parental rights in April 2007, citing the health department's report and how it reaffirmed that Farley's home is unsanitary.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court order, finding Farley's due process rights were denied by the use of the health department's report in terminating his rights. After the trial court received the report, it didn't conduct further proceedings and Farley wasn't able to cross-examine the inspector or offer his own evidence to contradict the report.

A parent must be able to view evidence used to terminate his or her parental rights and given the opportunity to respond, wrote Judge Michael Barnes. The trial court's off-the-record investigation and failure to give Farley the opportunity to respond created a high risk of error.

Even though DCS argued Farley didn't object to the order or file a motion to correct error, it was a fundamental error by the court and he did not waive his right to appeal this issue. Also, there was evidence the house was unsuitable for children when they were found to be CHINS; however, there was also evidence that Farley was slowly improving the home. If there was convincing evidence that the condition of Farley's home which led to the removal of the children had not been remedied, then the additional investigation ordered by the trial court wouldn't have been necessary, wrote Judge Barnes.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court order and remanded with instructions for the trial court to conduct another trial.

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