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High court hears first 'rocket docket' appeal

April 17, 2009

In the first appeal of a juvenile case under Indiana Appellate Rule 14.1, the "rocket docket," the Indiana Supreme Court ruled the juvenile court's determination that a child shouldn't be immediately reunited with his mother until after the school year concluded - contrary to what the Department of Child Services recommended - wasn't clearly erroneous.

Also in the appeal, the Supreme Court addressed whether the juvenile court's order rejecting DCS' placement recommendation is eligible for expedited appeal under Rule 14.1; what the appropriate appellate standard for review for these types of expedited appeals is; and whether the juvenile court properly rejected DCS' recommendation.

In the case granted transfer with opinion today, In Re: T.S., a child in need of services, Indiana Department of Child Services v. LaPorte Circuit Court and LaPorte County CASA, No. 46S04-0904-JV-160, the high court first had to determine whether the juvenile court's decision was within the category of rulings appealable under App. Rule. 14.1. The rule says that orders entered under Indiana Code Section 31-34-19-6.1(f) are eligible for expedited appeal; that statute says if a juvenile court enters findings under -6.1(d) and (e), the department may appeal in an expeditious manner the juvenile court's decree under any available procedure provided by Indiana Rules of Trial Procedure or Indiana Rules of Appellate Procedure. In this case, the juvenile court entered a dispositional decree with written findings and conclusions and stated why it wasn't accepting DCS' recommendation T.S. immediately be returned to his mother's home, which satisfies subsections (d) and (e), wrote Justice Brent Dickson.

The Supreme Court agreed with DCS that I.C. Section 31-34-19-6.1(d) at the trial court level means the trial court is to accept DCS' recommendations unless they are unreasonable or contrary to the welfare of the child and the state is to presume the recommendations are correct.

"Because of the statutory presumption favoring DCS' final recommendations, juvenile courts thus lack unfettered discretion to make a contrary decision," the justice wrote.

However, the appellate review standard under this statute will be reviewed as clearly erroneous instead of an abuse of discretion. The juvenile court supported with specific factual findings its conclusion that reunification wasn't in T.S.' best interest at that time. DCS didn't show the findings failed to support the juvenile court's ruling and the high court declined to find the juvenile court's determination was clearly erroneous, wrote Justice Dickson.

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