The Indiana Court of Appeals impermissibly reversed termination of a father’s parental rights, a majority of the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Friday in reinstating a trial court order.
Justice Loretta Rush wrote for the majority in a 4-1 decision that a divided COA panel that overturned the trial court “contravened the standard of review by reweighing the evidence. We therefore affirm the trial court’s judgment.”
The case arose from the court of former Lake Superior Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura, who since has been appointed to lead the Department of Child Services. The court stripped a father of visitation because of a history of abuse of the children’s mother and failure to comply with court-ordered services.
Father later was convicted of a firearm charge and imprisoned in Illinois, where he complied with anger-management programs and sought to reform himself, according to the record. When released, he contacted DCS in an effort to see his children who since had been placed with maternal grandparents.
The majority of justices held that the Court of Appeals could not substitute its judgment that too little credence was given to the father’s efforts for the findings of the trial court. The case is In the Matter of the Termination of the Parent-Child Relationship of E.M. and El.M., E.M. v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 45S03-1308-JT-557.
“The Court of Appeals’ focus on Father’s recent efforts was understandable, but nevertheless amounted to reweighing the evidence,” Rush wrote, noting that “the evidence here was close.
“… It was not clearly erroneous for the trial court to conclude that after three and a half years, Father’s efforts simply came too late and that (his children) needed permanency even more than they needed a final effort at family preservation,” the majority held.
Justice Robert Rucker dissented. “In a carefully worded and well reasoned memorandum decision the Court of Appeals concluded there was insufficient evidence to support the trial court’s judgment terminating Father’s parental rights,” he wrote in agreeing with the COA’s reversal.
Rucker noted there was no evidence in the record that the children were ever abused and evidence was deficient to support removal being in the children’s best interest. Noting the majority view that the evidence was “close,” he wrote, “But this is not a game of horseshoes and close is not good enough.
“In order to terminate a parent’s parental rights the State must prove its case by clear and convincing evidence. It has failed to do so.”