COA chastises court for magistrates repeatedly entering final judgments

A southern Indiana trial court that has been repeatedly advised by the Indiana Supreme Court that magistrate judges may not sign the court’s findings and conclusions was told again by the Indiana Court of Appeals on Wednesday in a CHINS case to stop the practice.

Mother L.T. appeals the finding by Vanderburgh Superior Court that four of her children, D.F., Kn.L., Ka.L, and M.M., are children in need of services. In October 2016, the Department of Child Services filed a petition alleging the children were CHINS following an incident with the older two girls. L.T., who has a history of mental illness and self-medicates with alcohol and marijuana, started hitting and berating the teens in the middle of the night, accusing them of sending nude photos by phone.

The girls were able to leave the house and walk 20 minutes to their aunt’s house, who took them to the hospital. The state alleges Kn.L. and Ka.L. are CHINS because their hygiene was quite poor and they had to begin showering at school and have the school wash their clothes. L.T. was not receptive to the school social worker’s suggestions about the hygiene issues, according to the record.

Magistrate Judge Renee Ferguson in Court 4 presided over the CHINS fact-finding hearing, the dispositional hearing, and later signed the written orders adjudicating the children to be CHINS and dispositional orders for mother to participate in various services. Mother filed her appeal before the written orders were entered, but the Court of Appeals still decided to rule on the matter.

Judge Paul Mathias used the opinion to note “what appears to be a pattern in this particular trial court.” He cited In re I.B., 32 N.E.3d 1164, 1173 n.6 (Ind. 2015) and K.E. v. Indiana Dep’t of Child Servs., 39 N.E.3d 641, 652 n.8 (Ind. 2015), two cases in which the Supreme Court noted the limits on the power of a magistrate and wrote both times that the justices trust the court will observe this necessity on remand. There have also been two memorandum decisions before the COA with the same issue.

“These admonitions have apparently gone unheeded,” Mathias wrote.

“We are well aware that trial court judges are oftentimes subject to an incredible workload, and those trial court judges who are privileged to have magistrates to assist them in this workload rely upon the magistrates to help them manage their valuable time. But we cannot continue to overlook the repeated failure to abide by the requirements of the statutes empowering magistrates. We therefore say in no uncertain terms: trial court magistrates do not have the authority to enter final judgments in civil cases, including juvenile cases.

“Final dispositional orders in CHINS cases must be signed by the trial court judge, not simply the magistrate. The failure of the trial court to do so only increases the chance of unnecessary delays in otherwise time-sensitive cases involving children.”

Because neither party objected to the authority of the magistrate, the COA addressed mother’s appeal on its merits and found sufficient evidence to support the CHINS finding. Mathias noted mother does not acknowledge problems with her parenting, but instead blames her children or others, and claims all witnesses were lying.

“Clearly, the children are in need of care and treatment that they are not receiving, and Mother’s behavior supports the trial court’s conclusion that the children would not receive such care or treatment without the intervention of the trial court,” he wrote in In re D.F., Kn.L., Ka.L. and M.M., Children Alleged to Be in Need of Services, L.T. (Mother) v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 82A04-1704-JC-869.  

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