The Department of Child Services’ failure to investigate a child’s aunt as a possible adoptive parent – and a trial court’s refusal to allow DCS to withdraw consent for foster parents to adopt after acknowledging its failure – prompted the Indiana Court of Appeals to reverse a trial court order granting the foster parents’ petition to adopt.
The court on Tuesday ruled that Jackson Circuit judge William E. Vance erred in not allowing DCS to withdraw its consent for the foster parents to adopt in In the Matter of the Adoption of N.W.R.; M.R. v. R.B. and R.B., and Indiana Dept. of Child Services, 36A01-1109-AD-407. The appellate panel ordered the trial court to reconsider evidence after DCS completes an investigation of the child’s aunt, M.R., as a potential adoptive parent.
N.W.R., a 2-year-old boy, was determined to be a child in need of services less than three weeks after his birth. He was placed with foster parents R.B. and R.B., unbeknownst to the child’s aunt, M.R., with whom N.W.R.’s three siblings, ages 3, 4 and 5, had been placed.
M.R. requested the child be placed with her, court records show, but DCS told her that her East Chicago home was too far away and conflicted with the child’s permanency plan goal of reunification with biological parents.
As the aunt persisted, she was granted visitation rights that increased over time. But before N.W.R’s first birthday, the biological parents’ rights were terminated, and the court ultimately granted the foster parents’ adoption petition, in the course of which it denied DCS’s motion to withdraw its consent.
The appellate panel instructed the trial court to “review the evidence de novo to determine which adoptive placement is in the best interests of the child, giving due consideration to the evidence showing that these siblings should be placed together. The court shall not consider the passage of time or maintenance of the status quo dispositive.”
The unanimous opinion written by Judge Edward Najam Jr. said that when DCS informed the court of its desire to withdraw consent because it had not carried out its obligations to determine placement in the child’s best interest, the court had an obligation to allow the withdrawal of consent.
“DCS had the integrity to declare on its own initiative that it had failed to meet its statutory duty. And this notice by DCS that its investigation was incomplete went directly to the heart of the adoption because it is the court’s responsibility to determine the best interests of the child based upon a full investigation of credible placement alternatives,” Najam wrote. “The court’s ruling against DCS’ motion to withdraw its consent affected the substantial rights of the parties and was not harmless.”