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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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