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Courts offer CHINS facilitations

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Because mediations have become commonplace in family law cases, it may come as no surprise that a number of Indiana counties have been implementing a similar strategy to determine if a child is a child in need of services, or CHINS.

In fact, a few CHINS facilitations were mentioned in the grant proposals for family court projects around the state.

But unlike mediations for divorces or other family law issues that involve two parties, their lawyers, and a mediator, CHINS facilitations can include the parents, their attorney, service providers, a Indiana Department of Child Services lawyer, a court-appointed special advocate, and the facilitator. Sometimes, relatives of the children and foster parents will participate. Add to that the supervisor for the DCS attorney and/or the CASA supervisor in some cases, and a room can fill up quickly.

However, all of these voices are necessary, say those familiar with CHINS facilitations, because it is a chance for each to have a say in the agreement, including the parents, and possibly avoid a fact-finding hearing.

For instance, in LaPorte County, CHINS facilitations have taken place since 2003, according to director of juvenile court services Krista MacLennan. She said about 100 CHINS facilitations take place there every year. The LaPorte County program started, MacLennan said, after the magistrate for the juvenile court at the time learned of a similar program in Allen County.

Other programs around the state include CHINS facilitations in Bartholomew and Jackson counties, which started in 2004 and 2007, respectively, and are part of the same family courts project. Johnson County started doing CHINS facilitations three years ago.

The hope for this and other CHINS facilitation programs is to help families reach agreements about allegations, in lieu of a fact-finding hearing, in a way that will expedite the process and help relieve the courts of some of their CHINS cases. It also gives the families some ownership in what they agree to for the future.

This could include necessary services that the parents would be required to participate in, and if the parents opposed any of the suggestions of the people in the room, they would get a chance to express their concern during the facilitation, MacLennan said.

Magistrate Nancy Gettinger agreed.

“From the court’s perspective … it’s a more efficient use of the court’s time if the parties can agree. It also empowers the parties to be a part of the process. This way, things are not happening to them, but they’re asked to engage and help decide what it is they need to be doing,” she said.

She added compliance is higher, and it’s more difficult for a parent in an agreement to later say they didn’t understand or agree to what was discussed at a facilitation.

In cases where the parents deny the allegations, if there are criminal charges pending and they don’t want to admit to anything that could affect their criminal case, or if DCS attorneys suggest to a judge that they don’t think those involved can reach an agreement at a facilitation, the parties will still need to go to court for a fact-finding hearing.

Magistrate Gettinger, formerly an attorney for DCS, said she can also appreciate the perspective of DCS attorneys in these facilitations.

“At the beginning of these cases, we don’t have crystal balls to know everything. We aren’t sure when the parents agree to something in a facilitation that they’ll follow through. … As a Department of Child Services attorney, I needed to make sure these kids were safe on behalf of the state of Indiana, so I wasn’t willing to give up too much.”

She said her perspective had slightly changed since she became a magistrate.

“As a magistrate, I think this is great. It doesn’t mean that just because they have an agreement it’ll go swimmingly, because there are things I don’t know about every case,” she said, “but it helps.”

She and MacLennan said that most facilitations end with an agreement from everyone in the room.

But on the rare occasion someone in the room doesn’t sign off, such as the CASA or a CASA’s supervisor, “that speaks volumes to me. I have to weigh that in my decision to sign off on the order,” Magistrate Gettinger said.

Tammi Hickman, director of the Johnson County CASA Program, said she appreciates that CASAs have a voice in these facilitations.

In her county, Hickman said around 95 percent of all new CHINS cases were facilitated. As director, she attends facilitations for cases where DCS tells her a CASA should be placed on the case. She said there are typically four of these facilitations that take place every Monday.

Hickman said it is also helpful that the CASA meets with families after they’ve already set their agreement. Because the parents have been involved with the agreement, they are also more cooperative.

In LaPorte County, after Magistrate Gettinger signs off on an agreement, she meets with the parties.

“They have to listen to my speech that the agreement is signed, sealed, delivered. My job is to make sure the agreement gets implemented. I tell the parties, ‘I need to make sure the department does what it needs to do, and you need to do what you need to do,’” she said.

She also tells parties that if they are not in compliance or end up in court down the road, they will have a different experience.

“If after a year they are not any further along than they are today in doing what the agreement says they will do, they are looking at a different plan because the kids can’t live with that uncertainty,” she said.

MacLennan added the facilitations also save time by cutting out one of the typical steps in CHINS cases.

“What had happened prior to this, there would be an initial hearing where the Department of Child Services would present evidence and the court would determine if it was a CHINS case. The family would then be ordered to work with the Department of Child Services on a plan, and that could take another 30 to 45 days. Now we’re doing it all in the first 30 days. We’re creating the plan at that time,” she said.

MacLennan also said that in most cases the parents have counsel at the facilitation, whether it’s someone who is appointed to represent them or someone they pay. In most cases, the parties have met with counsel prior to the hearing.

In LaPorte County, facilitations are also used for cases that involve permanency planning. While these aren’t as successful as the CHINS facilitations, “I know we’ve avoided some drawn-out termination of parental rights hearings because we encouraged families to voluntarily terminate their rights,” MacLennan said.

A similar program in Bartholomew and Jackson counties, overseen by Pat McSoley, the coordinator/mediator for the family court project for Bartholomew, Brown, Jackson, and Lawrence counties, is experiencing success with CHINS facilitations similar to that recorded in LaPorte and Johnson counties.

Since his programs started in the last few years, “I would say one of the main differences is an increase in communication between the parents, service providers, and DCS,” McSoley said. “And I think that another difference is the parents are getting into service programs much quicker in the process.”

He added facilitations are also less adversarial, “making it more of a cooperative process for reunification of the family.”

As a result, McSoley said he has received positive feedback from the families. “One of the things we try to stress is we want their participation. We always ask if there are any services that aren’t being discussed and let them have a say in the ownership of the plan put into place.”

Like the others, McSoley said these facilitations were important because they can speed up the process.

“Any county with any significant number of CHINS cases should do this,” Hickman added.•

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