COA slams courts, DCS for violating parents’ due process

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The Indiana Court of Appeals reiterated harsh words at the Department of Child Services and Indiana trial courts after it reversed another case involving the failure to afford due process protections to families in termination of parental rights cases.

Mother L.R. was facing a petition to terminate her parental rights to her three minor children. She failed to appear for a “status of counsel” hearing, prompting the Vanderburgh Superior Court to enter a default judgment against her. On DCS’s motion, the trial court terminated L.R.’s parental rights on that basis alone, and though L.R. filed a timely motion to correct error, she was denied the opportunity to explain her failure to appear at hearing.DCS conceded that L.R. “was not provided the due process protection to which she is entitled” and that the court’s termination order failed to enter findings of fact and conclusions of law as required by Indiana Code section 31-35-2-8.

On July 9, the appellate court issued an order addressing similar due process violations in termination of parental rights cases from Indiana trial courts statewide. That order noted that over a six-month period, DCS had filed eight motions to remand in separate, but substantially similar cases, instead of filing an appellate brief.

That order found that by filing a motion to remand, “DCS has successfully avoided defending repeated, significant violations of due process in termination of parental rights cases.”

 “The increasing frequency of these motions suggest that there are repeated, significant violations of due process occurring in termination of parental rights cases throughout this state,” Judge Paul Mathias wrote.  “This is a disturbing trend given the fundamental rights at issue in these types of cases.”

Mathias cited In re the Termination of the Parent-Child Relationship of J.K., B.K., and I.R. (Minor Children) and L.R. (Mother) v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 18A-JT-529, as one such case referenced in the July 9 order, reprimanding both DCS and the trial courts for falling short.   

“While the Court commends DCS for essentially conceding error in these cases, the Court is obligated to formally admonish DCS for its failure to afford litigants throughout this state the due process rights they are owed,” the court order continued. “Furthermore, the Court also reminds the trial courts throughout this state of their duty to ensure that litigants’ due process rights are not violated.”

The court reversed the termination order against L.R. and remanded the case for proceedings. The COA decision comes nearly two months after the July 9 order, which was specifically directed to Vanderburgh Superior Judge Brent J. Niemeier and Magistrate Judge Renee A. Ferguson, who presided in L.R.’s case. The COA’s July 9 published order also directed a copy of the order to be placed in four other Vanderburgh County TPR cases identified by case number.

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