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CHINS finding establishes only status of child

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A finding that a child is in need of services only establishes the status of the child and means the child is a CHINS even if one parent isn't involved in the reasons for the determination, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled today.

The issue as to whether a child can be deemed a CHINS with respect to one parent, but not the other arose in the case In the matter of N.E., a child in need of services; N.L. (father) v. Indiana Department of Child Services, No. 49S02-0906-JV-270. N.E.'s father, N.L., appealed the finding that N.E. was a child in need of services and the juvenile court's decision to not place his daughter with him. N.E.'s mother has four children with four different fathers and the children were removed from her home after the Department of Child Services alleged they were CHINS because of domestic violence in the home.

The court then established N.L.'s paternity and placed N.E. in his custody, but removed N.E. to foster care a week later due to concerns about her paternal grandfather's drug problems. N.L. lived with his parents.

At a fact-finding hearing, a guardian ad litem stated N.E. had lived with her father for an extensive period of time and there was no doubt she was appropriately cared for there. The juvenile court found the children to be wards of the state, but made no specific findings as to N.L. or reasons for not placing N.E. with him.

The Indiana Court of Appeals was split in its reversal, ruling the state hadn't proved that N.E. was a CHINS with regard to her father. Judge Nancy Vaidik dissented, arguing a CHINS determination regards only the status of the child.

The justices agreed with Judge Vaidik that a CHINS determination establishes the status of a child alone. The conduct of one parent can be enough for a child to be adjudicated a CHINS, and to adjudicate the culpability on the part of each parent would be at a variance with the purposes of a CHINS inquiry, wrote Justice Frank Sullivan.

"Said differently, the purpose of a CHINS adjudication is to protect children, not punish parents," he wrote.

The juvenile court properly adjudicated N.E. as a CHINS because the mother failed to protect the children against the domestic violence in the home. In these circumstances, the CHINS petition didn't have to make any allegations with respect to N.L., the justice wrote.

The justices also agreed with the Court of the Appeals that the trial court's reasons for finding N.E. to be a ward of the state failed to take into account the time she spent in her father's care or why she shouldn't have been placed with him.

The omission of these facts are important because when a juvenile court makes a decision during a CHINS hearing as to whether a child will be a ward of the state or orders services, this could potentially interfere with the parents' rights in bringing up their children, wrote Justice Sullivan. Also, statute requires a juvenile court to enter a decree that is least restrictive and consider placing a child with a blood relative before other out-of-home placements, he continued.

The justices vacated that part of the juvenile court's judgment pertaining to N.E. because it may have interfered with N.L.'s rights to raise his daughter, and remanded for proceedings consistent with the opinion.

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