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High court reverses termination of mom's rights

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The majority of Indiana Supreme Court justices ruled in a parental termination case that the evidence presented didn't clearly show a mother's rights to her son should be terminated. One justice dissented because he believes an appellate court should defer to the lower court in assessing the facts of a case.

In the Involuntary Termination of Parent-Child Relationship of G.Y.; R.Y., mother; and G.Y., father v. Indiana Department of Child Services and Child Services, No. 49S02-0902-JV-091, the high court April 24 reversed the termination of R.Y.'s parental rights to her son, G.Y., because the majority believed the termination was clearly erroneous based on the evidence.

R.Y. had her son in April 2004 and took care of him for nearly 20 months until she was arrested and incarcerated for a drug offense that took place a year before G.Y.'s birth. She failed in getting a relative or friend to care for her son while she was in prison, so G.Y. was placed in foster care and deemed to be a child in need of services. R.Y. was ordered to participate in certain classes, find a job and housing, and other matters before she could be reunited with G.Y. after being released from prison. While incarcerated, she maintained contact with her son and had regular visits with him.

In 2007, the state filed a petition to terminate the mother's parental rights, which the trial court granted. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed.

The justices examined the evidence presented to support the termination of R.Y.'s parental rights, and the majority ruled the evidence didn't clearly and convincingly support ending her parental rights. They examined the likelihood she would re-offend, the effects on G.Y. of an additional period of instability, R.Y.'s new job and housing when she is released, G.Y.'s bond with his foster parents, and the degree of interaction with G.Y. while his mother was in prison to come to their conclusion.

The majority didn't find the likelihood she would re-offend, the amount of time it will likely take her to comply with the conditions of the court's participation decree, the fact G.Y. is closer to his foster parents right now than his mother, or G.Y.'s need for immediately permanency through adoption to be sufficiently strong reasons - alone or in conjunction with the trial court's other reasons - to determine termination was in G.Y.'s best interest, wrote Justice Frank Sullivan. The majority also noted there were some programs and assessments R.Y. couldn't complete until after she was released from prison.

In his dissent, Justice Theodore Boehm believed an appellate court should be very reluctant to conduct its own assessment of the cumulative effect of the factors above on the child and the mother's likelihood of addressing the problems that led to the dispositional order. The review of the factors turns on a judgment as to the credibility of the witnesses both to their accounts of past events and their evaluation of R.Y.'s future ability to parent and G.Y.'s ability to thrive.

"I certainly agree that there is unfairness in a CHINS dispositional order that includes directives to the mother that she is incapable of fulfilling while incarcerated," wrote the justice. "But I read the trial court's order as turning on the child's best interests and the determination that the conditions leading to the child's removal will not be remedied - not the mother's failure to comply fully with the dispositional order."

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