Justices reverse CHINS finding, noting father coerced to admit adjudication

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Because a Marion Superior Court judge’s remarks and conduct in their cumulative effect breached the court’s duty of impartiality and amounted to coercion of a 17-year-old girl’s father to admit she was a child in need of services, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed the CHINS adjudication.

The Marion County Department of Child Services initiated CHINS proceedings for J.K., alleging her grandmother locked her out of their home after coming home too late from work, that J.K.’s mother said she was tired of J.K., and her father refused to talk to them while at work or take time off to do so.

At the fact-finding hearing before Judge Marilyn Moores, the judge expressed impatience regarding the potential overlap between custody in the divorce and placement in the CHINS case, and during the hearing she called the parties’ dispute “ridiculous and retarded,” faulted the parties for “stupidity,” and continued the hearing to order mediation. When mediation failed, Moores again made disparaging comments about the matter, calling the parties knuckleheads and then told father that he should admit to the CHINS adjudication so that J.K., if placed with him, could be bused to her current school district. Father could not drive J.K. to school because of a suspended driver’s license and his work schedule.

According to the record, Moores said, “If I were you I’d waive fact-finding otherwise you’re going to find your butt finding a new job.”

Father did not want to admit to the adjudication, but relented. He later appealed, arguing the trial court’s comments deprived him of a fair tribunal and coerced his admission that J.K. was in need of services.

“[We] conclude the cumulative effect of the trial court’s comments breached its ‘duty to remain impartial and refrain from making unnecessary comments or remarks,’ such that Father was coerced into admitting that J.K. was a CHINS – a matter he had firmly contested just moments earlier,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote.

The justices reversed J.K.’s adjudication, and because J.K. is now older than 18, there is no need to remand the matter, Rush mentioned in a footnote in In the Matter of J.K., A Child in Need of Services: M.K. v. Marion County Department of Child Services and Child Advocates, Inc.

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