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Father’s lack of parenting experience does not support CHINS finding

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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the adjudication of a toddler as a child in need of services after finding the Department of Child Services did not establish that the child’s father is unlikely to meet the child’s needs absent court intervention based on his lack of parenting experience and previous diagnosis of having post-traumatic stress disorder.

Father M.H. was on active duty in the military most of S.A.’s life and had only seen the child twice before CHINS proceedings were initiated. His paternity was not established until these proceedings began. M.H. never paid child support or provided anything for S.A.’s care while on active duty.

S.A. was removed from his mother’s care due to her drug use and adjudicated as a CHINS. S.A. lived with his maternal grandmother and stepfather at the time of the adjudication and remained in their care.

After his paternity was established, M.H. began spending time with his son and wanted to receive custody of the boy. He visited the child at the grandmother’s house, and while he was a little slow changing diapers and clothes on the child, he interacted well with him.

At a fact-finding hearing regarding S.A.’s CHINS status, the trial court criticized M.H. for not establishing paternity sooner and also referenced M.H.’s previous revelation to DCS that he had been diagnosed and treated for PTSD while on active duty. DCS and the court-appointed special advocate wanted the CHINS adjudication to continue, citing concerns about the boy’s unfamiliarity with his father and M.H.’s lack of prior parenting experience.

The trial judge continued with the adjudication, ordering M.H. to participate in services and submit documentation for his PTSD treatment or undergo a psychological evaluation.

In In the Matter of: S.A. (Minor Child), Child in Need of Services and M.H. (Father) v. The Indiana Department of Child Services, 49A02-1402-JC-74, the judges sua sponte addressed the CHINS proceeding and found father’s due process rights had been violated because by adjudicating the child as a CHINS prior to father’s fact-finding hearing, the father was deprived of a meaningful opportunity to be heard.

But they did not rely on that finding to reverse the adjudication. Instead, the judges cited insufficient evidence.

“DCS does not satisfy its burden of proof by simply highlighting Father’s shortcomings as a parent; rather, DCS must establish that Father is unlikely to meet the Child’s needs absent coercive court intervention. Neither the trial court’s findings nor the other evidence in the record supports such a conclusion. If it were sufficient for the purposes of CHINS adjudications that a parent has no prior parenting experience or training, then all new parents would necessarily be subject to DCS intervention,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote.

Father had resolved the allegations in the CHINS petition by the time of the fact-finding hearing. Also, his PTSD diagnosis was relied on by DCS as a post hoc justification, as it was not raised in the petition as a basis for DCS involvement.

“We find Father’s voluntary admission of his PTSD history to DCS and the CASA to be indicative of the fact that court intervention would not be necessary to compel Father into treatment,” she wrote.
 

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