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Reversal: CHINS adjudication unsupported by future safety concerns

January 22, 2019

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the adjudication of a baby found to be a child in need of services after finding that the Department of Child Services failed to prove the parents’ mental health issues seriously endangered the baby.

In February 2017, previously homeless parents C.N. and L.N., Sr. moved into a home and applied for food subsidy services for their one-month-old baby, L.N., Jr. The couple also engaged in services with Healthy Families and the Hope Center, while also finding a doctor for L.N., Jr. at the Neighborhood Health Clinic.

But a few months later, the Department of Child Services received a report about the parents’ mental health and their ability to care for the baby. C.N., the mother, admitted that she had been previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had stopped taking her medication.

After several visits from a family case manager and discussions with the family’s service providers, L.N., Jr. was removed from the home. DCS then filed a CHINS petition, and a psychologist who examined the parents opined that C.N. likely had a Schizotypal personality disorder, while L.N., Sr., had a “below average” intellectual functioning. Those mental problems, the psychologist said, could interfere with their parenting ability.

The Allen Superior Court then determined L.N., Jr. was a CHINS, agreeing that the parents’ mental health disorders “interfere with their ability to appropriately care for and parent the child.” But on appeal, C.N. and L.N., Sr. argued DCS failed to present sufficient evidence to demonstrate L.N., Jr. was a CHINS.

Specifically, the parents argued there was not sufficient evidence to prove L.N., Jr. was seriously endangered by their actions or inactions, that his needs were unmet or that they would go unmet in the absence of coercive intervention of the court. The appellate panel agreed Tuesday that there was insufficient evidence to prove L.N., Jr. was in serious danger in In the Matter of L.N., Jr., a Child Alleged to be a Child in Need of Services; C.N. (Mother) and L.N., Sr. (Father) v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 18A-JC-1666

The appellate judges noted DCS failed to present any evidence relevant to the actual impact, if any, of C.N.’s mental illness or L.N., Sr.’s low intellect on the child’s safety. It added that testimony from service providers amounted to speculation about parenting issues that may or may not materialize in the future.

“We understand that Mother’s mental illness and Father’s low intellect may be a cause for concern for DCS. But a cause for concern is not the touchstone of a CHINS determination, and an unspecified concern about what might happen in the future is insufficient in itself to carry the State’s burden of proof,” Judge Edward Najam wrote for the court. “Indeed, future concerns rather than present facts are not enough to support a CHINS determination.”

The appellate court further added that by the time of the fact-finding hearing, both parents had resolved their prior issues with transience and cleanliness and had learned how to properly feed and parent L.N., Jr. by engaging in parenting classes with a therapist once a week.

“Here, DCS did not present any evidence that Child was seriously endangered as a result of Parents’ mental health, actions, or inactions,” Najam concluded. “We therefore hold that the trial court erred when it found Child to be a CHINS, and we reverse the trial court’s judgment.”

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