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Mistake invalidates termination of dad's rights

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A father's consent to voluntarily terminate his parental rights so his sister could adopt his daughter was invalidated by misrepresentations made by a family case manager for the Department of Child Services. As such, the father's petition to set aside the judgment should have been granted, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today.

Married parents D.L. and T.W. had a daughter, but the child was determined to be a child in need of services shortly after birth. D.L, who lived in Florida because of his work as a contractor, returned to Indiana because of the CHINS proceedings and began participating in weekly supervised visits with his daughter, K.L. The Tippecanoe County DCS placed K.L. in the care of D.L.'s sister, Ann, and her husband, Glen. T.W., who had drug and psychological problems, voluntarily terminated her parental rights so Ann and Glen could adopt the baby. D.L. decided to do the same under the assumption that Ann and Glen would be able to adopt K.L. The TCDCS family case manager investigated Ann and Glen and found no red flags.

D.L.'s parental rights were terminated and Ann and Glen began the adoption process, but TCDCS removed K.L. from the home after discovering a report made by one of Glen's adult daughters that he sexually abused her when she was younger. Charges were never filed. After learning this, D.L. sought to set aside the judgment terminating his parental rights, which the trial court denied.

D.L. argued on appeal that the judgment needed to be set aside based on the family case manager's mistake or misrepresentation in her home study, that the judgment was procured by fraud, and that public policy regarding parents' rights to establish a home and raise their children weighs in favor of setting aside the judgment.

In In the Matter of the Termination of Parent-Child Relationship of K.L.; D.L. v. Tippecanoe County Department of Child Services, No. 79A04-0908-JV-482, the appellate court agreed, finding there were no concerns about D.L.'s involvement in his daughter's life and that his decision to end his parental rights wasn't an attempt to exit his child's life, wrote Judge Ezra Friedlander. At the time of his decision, all of the parties thought it was in K.L.'s best interest Ann and Glen adopt her, and there were no red flags regarding past troubles in the home.

Even though D.L. was properly advised of his constitutional and legal rights at the termination hearing in which he proceeded pro se, all the advisements and questions at the hearing were clouded by the misrepresentation contained in the home report study and TCDCS' subsequent actions that served as the basis for K.L.'s placement in Ann and Glen's home and approval for her adoption. If TCDCS or the family case manager had adequately searched the DCS records, K.L. wouldn't have been placed in Ann and Glen's home and her possible adoption by the two wouldn't have been the deciding factor in D.L.'s decision to terminate his parental rights, wrote the judge.

"Under these circumstances, we find that Father's consent to voluntarily terminate his parental rights was vitiated by the misrepresentations made by the TCDCS through (the family case manager)," wrote Judge Friedlander.

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