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COA sets standard in parental rights cases

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In addressing a statutory inconsistency on parental rights terminations, the Indiana Court of Appeals has held that trial judges must offer findings of fact in those types of cases just as they're required to by law for children in need of services cases and grandparent visitation matters.

The three-judge appellate panel issued that holding today in a unanimous decision on In The Matter of the Termination of Parental-Child Relationship of A.K., Minor Child., and A.S. Mother and O.K., Father, v. Ind. Dep't of Child Services, St. Joseph County, No. 71A05-0905-JV-261, which comes out of the courtroom of St. Joseph Probate Judge Peter Nemeth.

The case involves the biological parents of A.K., who was born in 2004 and declared a CHINS by the time she was 3 years old. Facts of the case show that both parents had various legal, mental, and other problems leading up to the court's and DCS involvement. In April 2009, Judge Nemeth issued an order terminating both parents' rights but didn't make any findings of fact.

On appeal, the case was fully briefed before the Indiana Court of Appeals in early October and within a month the appellate court ordered Judge Nemeth to enter a revised final order containing complete findings of fact in support of his decision. After an extension, Judge Nemeth in January filed a motion to vacate the appellate court's order from late last year. Specifically, he claimed the higher court's order requiring complete findings of fact "is not authorized by the Indiana Rules of Procedure and usurps the power of the Supreme Court of Indiana to control practice and procedure in all the Courts of Indiana."

The appellate court denied Judge Nemeth's order in January and threatened to find him in contempt if he didn't comply by February. Judge Nemeth asked the Supreme Court to accept jurisdiction, but the justices dismissed that transfer motion in February. Judge Nemeth entered his findings that same week.

On the merits, the Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed Judge Nemeth's judgment in today's ruling, finding that clear and convincing evidence supports his decision terminating the parents' rights. But the panel first tackled the procedural hurdles that Judge Nemeth had raised about statutory requirements for findings of fact, issuing a holding that will impact all cases of this kind.

"The probate court was not statutorily required to enter findings of fact in issuing its judgment involuntarily terminating Mother's and Father's parental rights to A.K.," Judge Paul Mathias wrote for the panel, citing caselaw from Parks v. Delaware County Dep't of Child Servs., 862 N.E.2d 1275, 1278 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007). "But where, as here, the rights invoked are of constitutional magnitude, our review cannot begin and end with the mere fact that applicable statutes do not require a trial court to support its conclusions with any identifiable rationale."

Judge Mathias concurred with the earlier panel in Parks that found a trial court's termination order should include those findings and conclusions as law because of the serious and permanent nature of these parental rights proceedings.

"We believe that a judgment terminating the relationship between a parent and child is impossible to review on appeal if it is nothing more than a mere recitation of the conclusions the governing statute requires the trial court to reach. Indiana's parents and children deserve more, and the basis notions of due process inherent in our system of justice demand more," the court wrote, citing the CHINS and grandparent visitation statutes that require these findings.

"We hold today that our trial courts must treat them accordingly, with the constitutional gravity they clearly have, and enter findings of fact that support the entry of the conclusions called for by Indiana statute and the common law," the court wrote.

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  1. The child support award is many times what the custodial parent earns, and exceeds the actual costs of providing for the children's needs. My fiance and I have agreed that if we divorce, that the children will be provided for using a shared checking account like this one(http://www.mediate.com/articles/if_they_can_do_parenting_plans.cfm) to avoid the hidden alimony in Indiana's child support guidelines.

  2. Fiat justitia ruat caelum is a Latin legal phrase, meaning "Let justice be done though the heavens fall." The maxim signifies the belief that justice must be realized regardless of consequences.

  3. Indiana up holds this behavior. the state police know they got it made.

  4. Additional Points: -Civility in the profession: Treating others with respect will not only move others to respect you, it will show a shared respect for the legal system we are all sworn to protect. When attorneys engage in unnecessary personal attacks, they lose the respect and favor of judges, jurors, the person being attacked, and others witnessing or reading the communication. It's not always easy to put anger aside, but if you don't, you will lose respect, credibility, cases, clients & jobs or job opportunities. -Read Rule 22 of the Admission & Discipline Rules. Capture that spirit and apply those principles in your daily work. -Strive to represent clients in a manner that communicates the importance you place on the legal matter you're privileged to handle for them. -There are good lawyers of all ages, but no one is perfect. Older lawyers can learn valuable skills from younger lawyers who tend to be more adept with new technologies that can improve work quality and speed. Older lawyers have already tackled more legal issues and worked through more of the problems encountered when representing clients on various types of legal matters. If there's mutual respect and a willingness to learn from each other, it will help make both attorneys better lawyers. -Erosion of the public trust in lawyers wears down public confidence in the rule of law. Always keep your duty to the profession in mind. -You can learn so much by asking questions & actively listening to instructions and advice from more experienced attorneys, regardless of how many years or decades you've each practiced law. Don't miss out on that chance.

  5. Agreed on 4th Amendment call - that was just bad policing that resulted in dismissal for repeat offender. What kind of parent names their boy "Kriston"?

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