CHINS reversal: ‘State may not intrude’ where coercion unnecessary

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A father who was ordered removed from the home he shared with his wife and four children despite a clean record and no prior reports of domestic violence won a ruling in his favor Wednesday. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a CHINS finding and concluded, “when coercion is not necessary, the State may not intrude into a family’s life.”

J.M. is the biological father of his youngest child and stepfather to three older children born to mother A.Y. from a previous marriage that ended after extensive domestic violence. Her relationship with her ex-husband ended seven years ago, and her children have not seen him since, according to the record.

“Mother entered into a relationship with (J.M.) in 2012. At the time of the commencement of the (children in need of services) proceedings, Father and Mother were living together, parenting the Children. Mother and Father are both gainfully employed, have medical insurance for themselves and the Children, and maintain an appropriate home for the family. The Children are bonded with Father and all four call him ‘Daddy,’” Judge Patricia Riley wrote. 

The oldest child from A.Y.’s first marriage, Am.M., who soon will turn 16, had been witness to domestic violence in her mother’s first marriage. In one instance when Am.M. was about 9, A.Y.’s first husband tied up A.Y. and told daughter Am.M that he was going to kill her mother, and that the child “was going to help him bury her,” according to the record.

Am.M.’s behavior changed in 2017, leading to suicide attempts, therapy and inpatient care, which her parents arranged before Department of Child Services intervention. During one of the sessions, she told a therapist “there was a great deal of violence in the home,” prompting the therapist’s statutory requirement to notify DCS of suspected abuse. The therapist then “contacted Mother, informed her that she had alerted DCS, and advised Mother to leave the house and take the Children to a battered women’s shelter if she did not want DCS to remove the Children,” Riley wrote. As a result, mother and her other children spent two nights in a shelter.

Mother later told a DCS family case manager that she had been in relationships with domestic violence but “did not specify that it was with (J.M.),” who, Riley wrote, “expressed his willingness ‘to do anything to reunite his family’ and denied any domestic violence in the home,” as did his wife.

“He clarified that he is more of a disciplinarian than Mother and admitted to striking S.M. (his 10-year-old son), but he explained it in a capacity to where it was more like a playful punch as versus abuse to sort of toughen (S.M.) up,” Riley wrote. “Besides noticing S.M. stiffening up and having a ‘fearful look on his face’ when she mentioned Father to him, (the family case manager) did not observe anything ‘concerning or noteworthy’ while talking to the Children.”

“… At the conclusion of the assessment, DCS recommended the Children to remain with Mother in the residence and for Father to live elsewhere ‘because the [C]hildren expressed fear and then [DCS] w[as] concerned about domestic issues between [Father] and [Mother],” Riley wrote.

Both parents voluntarily and proactively complied with services and had been addressing problems prior to DCS intervention, Riley noted. Nevertheless, the Marion Superior Court determined the father’s biological child, E.Y., to be a child in need of services. The COA found this to be erroneous in In the Matter of E.Y. (Minor Child) and J. M. (Father) v. Indiana Department of Child Services and Child Advocates, Inc., 19A-JC-114.

“Mindful to consider the family’s condition not just when the case was filed, but also when it is heard, we note that resolution of the family’s issues had started prior to DCS’s involvement. Although DCS’s intervention might have enabled a faster resolution, such as Father’s participation in batterer’s intervention sessions, it is clear that the family had recognized the problems and was working towards a positive outcome,” the panel found.

“Accordingly, the evidence fails to show that at the time of the fact finding hearing, Father was unwilling to provide the care Child needed without coercive court intervention. When coercion is not necessary, the State may not intrude into a family’s life. We therefore reverse the trial court’s judgment that Child was a CHINS.”

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