Divided COA reverses CHINS finding

The Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed a finding that a Marion County child was a child in need of services, with the majority of the appellate panel finding insufficient evidence to support the determination. The dissenting judge, however, urged caution in the face of a potentially dangerous situation.

After receiving a tip that U.F. might be in crisis, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Office Joshua Morgan to visit the hotel where U.F. was staying with her adoptive son, E.Y. U.F. claimed to be hearing voices through the television, so Morgan contacted E.Y.’s maternal grandmother to pick him up from school while U.F. was taken to the hospital.

E.Y. was also sent to the hospital for treatment for his asthma, which was untreated at that time. The Department of Child Services then placed E.Y. in foster care and filed a petition alleging he was a child in need of services due to U.F.’s mental problems and lack of stable housing.

The department also referred U.F. to home-based services, but she did not participate. The Marion Superior Court ultimately granted the CHINS petition, but a divided Indiana Court of Appeals reversed that decision Monday in In the Matter of E.Y., Child in Need of Services, and U.F. (Mother) v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 49A02-1707-JC-1634.

Judge Edward Najam, writing for the majority joined by Judge Paul Mathias, said DCS failed to prove E.Y. was in danger, or that his needs were unmet. Najam further noted that DCS did not provide evidence of an official mental illness diagnosis for U.F., nor did it present evidence of what impact, if any, U.F.’s purported mental illness had on E.Y.

“Indeed, the evidence does not support a reasonable inference that, at the time of the fact-finding hearing, Mother’s mental health endangered child at all, let alone that her mental health seriously endangered him,” the judge wrote. “To the contrary, (a home-based therapist) expressly acknowledge that Mother was meeting Child’s needs.”

Further, though U.F. was moving out of the hotel when Morgan her, DCS presented no other evidence that she and E.Y. were homeless or moved around frequently, Najam said. Thus, there was insufficient evidence to support the finding that she lacked stable housing, so the majority reversed the CHINS determination.

Judge Michael Barnes, however, dissented, writing separately that E.Y.’s untreated asthma was a possible medical risk that could endanger his life. Barnes further noted that the limited evidence supporting the determination at the fact-finding hearing was largely due to U.F.’s refusal to cooperate or communicate with DCS.

Similarly, looking to U.F.’s mental health, Barnes said the lack of an official diagnosis should not prevent the court from considering the observations of the professionals who worked on the case.

“I believe the majority places DCS in the impossible situation of having good reason to suspect Mother has a mental illness but lacking the means to prove that she has one because there is no CHINS finding and it cannot force Mother to undergo a psychological evaluation and therefore, it cannot prove E.Y. is a CHINS,” he wrote. “I believe it is prudent to err on the side of caution and not allow a potentially dangerous situation to fester.”

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