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Reversal: Trial court ordered to revisit CHINS petition

May 26, 2017

An Indiana trial court imposed an “inappropriately high” burden on the Department of Child Services to prove a presumption of a child in need of services situation, the Indiana Court of Appeals held Friday in an opinion ordering the trial court to revisit the CHINS petition.

In Indiana Department of Child Services v. J.D., R.B., et al, 71A03-1611-JC-2627, DCS received a report that M.B., a child, had been seen in the emergency room for multiple fractures, including several rib fractures. DCS Family Case Manager Bridget Murray spoke with R.B., the mother, and doctors at the hospital, where she learned M.B. began exhibiting symptoms of a fractured rib the after being removed from his car seat the previous day.

A physician, however, told Murray it was not feasible for M.B.’s injuries to have been caused simply by removal from his car seat, but that the pattern of the rib fractures showed signs of the child being squeezed. Murray concluded it was necessary to remove M.B. from R.B.’s care, so he was placed in foster care immediately upon his release from the hospital.

DCS then filed a petition alleging M.B. was a Child in Need of Services, and a fact-finding hearing was held in August 2016. Murray testified to the events leading up to M.B.’s removal, and three physicians testified his injuries were very likely non-accidental and had occurred during at least two separate incidents of trauma. R.B., J.D., the child’s father, and L.M., the mother’s boyfriend, also testified at the hearing and each denied observing any injuries or odd behaviors in M.B. before he was taken out of the car seat.

DCS argued it had presented sufficient evidence to trigger presumption under Indiana Code section 31-34-12-4, or the Presumption Statute, that M.B. was a CHINS, but the St. Joseph Probate Court disagreed and ordered the child returned to R.B.’s care. After the denial of its motion to correct error, DCS appealed, arguing the trial court had committed reversible legal error “by failing to give effect to the presumption set forth in I.C. section 31-34-13-4” and by rejecting the physicians’ testimonies to the non-accidental nature of M.B.’s injuries.

The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed with DCS, with Judge Robert Altice writing in a unanimous Friday opinion the trial court’s statements, such as the sentiment that it was “absurd” for the doctors to determine the injuries were non-accidental, were “problematic.”

For example, Altice wrote the question of whether the injuries were non-accidental was a question of fact, not law, as the trial court presumed, an error that “effectively required the court to disregard the physicians’ testimony that Child’s injuries were non-accidental.” Further, the court’s conclusion the physicians were unqualified to opine as to the nature of the injuries was the wrong approach, Altice said.

Additionally, the trial court “imposed an inappropriately high evidentiary burden on DCS to trigger the Presumption Statute,” the appellate panel said. That statute merely requires “competent evidence of probative value,” which DCS provided in the form of the evidence and testimony at the fact-finding hearing, the court said.

Thus, because the evidence was sufficient to trigger the Presumption Statute, the appellate panel reversed the trial court’s denial of the CHINS petition and remanded the case with instructions to conduct further proceedings.
 

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