The Indiana Court of Appeals disagrees with the state Department of Child Services that fact-finding and dispositional hearings in a child in need of services case are interchangeable. The appellate panel has ruled a Marion County father’s due process rights were denied because he didn’t receive the opportunity for a fact-finding hearing.
A three-judge appellate panel issued a decision Wednesday in the case of In The Matter of T.N., G.N. v. Indiana Department of Child Services and Child Advocates, No. 49A05-1101-JC-15, which addresses an aspect of an Indiana Supreme Court holding from last year that the state agency says gave it the ability to sacrifice one parent’s CHINS objections at a fact-finding hearing when another agrees state services are needed.
The appellate judges offered guidance for trial courts addressing these issues locally: If one parent disagrees with claims that a child is in need of services, a court must hold a fact-finding hearing to address those concerns before making a CHINS determination even if the other parent admits a CHINS determination is valid.
In this case from Marion Superior Judge Pro Tempore Gary Chavers, the court focused on a CHINS determination involving a teen daughter, T.N. The state agency had filed a CHINS petition in August 2010 alleging that the mother and father didn’t provide the girl with a safe living environment and appropriate supervision. Specifically, the petition included claims that T.N.’s mother allowed the daughter’s boyfriend to sleep over, which resulted in her pregnancy and giving birth at age 14, and that the father had untreated substance and mental-health issues. The trial court allowed T.N. to stay at the father’s home following an initial hearing, but less than a month later removed her and placed her in foster care because the father wasn’t cooperating with DCS, T.N. wasn’t enrolled in school, and she was hospitalized after attacks by family members of the mother’s boyfriend.
In November, the trial court held a fact-finding CHINS hearing to hear evidence. The mother and DCS reached an agreement and acknowledged the CHINS determination was necessary, but the father’s attorney objected because the two had shared joint, physical, and legal custody and he needed to participate in that hearing.
The father’s lawyer argued that the court couldn’t make that determination based only on the mother’s admission, but the court disagreed and found father G.N. could later present his evidence at a subsequent contested dispositional hearing about what services might be provided.
On appeal, the judges found the father was denied due process.
The DCS argued that the Supreme Court’s decision last year In Re: N.E., 919 N.E.2d 102, 106 (Ind. 2010), held that a CHINS determination establishes the status of a child alone and as a result it eliminated the requirement that the DCS prove the child is in need of services for the fact-finding process.
“We agree DCS does not have to prove a child is a CHINS as a result of both Mother’s actions and Father’s actions. Nor must the court assign ‘blame’ to each parent in its determination. Nevertheless, N.E. did not eliminate the requirement that DCS prove the child is, in fact, in need of services as alleged in the petition,” Judge Melissa May wrote. “Thus, we decline DCS’s invitation to hold one parent’s admission is sufficient to prove a child is a CHINS, when the child’s other parent contests that allegation.”
The court disagreed with the DCS that a later dispositional hearing was adequate to address the contesting parent’s concerns.
“As the necessity of court-ordered intervention has already been determined by the dispositional hearing, any argument a party might make that his child does not need court-ordered intervention is moot at that point,” Judge May wrote. “We therefore cannot agree that a contested dispositional hearing is an adequate substitute for a fact-finding hearing, just as we could not agree that a sentencing hearing would be an adequate substitute for a criminal trial.”
Balancing the three factors necessary for determining whether a litigant received due process, the appellate court determined the father’s interest in being able to raise his child without interference from the government is more substantial than the state’s interest in denying G.N. a fact-finding hearing. Due process requires a fact-finding hearing before the court declares the child is a CHINS, the appellate judges ruled. Even though the father later withdrew his objection to the CHINS determination and agreed to participate in the dispositional services ordered by the court, the appellate judges said that doesn’t mean the father – or any litigant – sacrifices due process rights simply by cooperating with a subsequent court order.