Res judicata leads to remand of CHINS determination

Saying it was “troubled” by how the Department of Child Services chose to litigate two nearly back-to-back child welfare cases, the Indiana Court of Appeals has ordered a trial court to re-evaluate a 2018 CHINS petition without relying on facts that were available for litigation during a 2017 CHINS proceeding.

The child in need of services proceedings at issue began on Nov. 7, 2017, five days after mother J.R. gave birth to R.N.L. J.R.’s other child, J.L., had previously been removed from her care, so the Department of Child Services alleged R.N.L. was a CHINS because, among other issues, the child’s parents had not provided a stable home and J.R. was unable and unwilling to care for the baby.

The Marion Superior Court denied and dismissed the 2017 CHINS petition on March 2, 2018, finding J.R. had a stable home and “had strengthened her parenting skills.” Just hours later, without telling the mother about the court’s decision, family case manager Brittney Whittaker asked to inspect the home and learned from J.R. that it was still not safe for the baby.  

Whitaker then filed a preliminary inquiry report indicating J.R. still struggled with poor parenting skills and mental health problems, as well as domestic violence. The report also revealed J.R. refused to buy formula for R.N.L. and had been threatened with eviction.

The trial court then authorized the filing of a second CHINS petition in March 2018, but J.R. moved to dismiss the petition on res judicata grounds. Specifically, J.R. claimed all of the allegations in the 2018 petition had or could have been litigated in the 2017 petition.

But the trial court denied the motion to dismiss and granted the CHINS petition in October. The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, overturned the denial of the motion to dismiss in a Wednesday opinion in In the Matter of R.L. (Minor Child) and J.R. (Mother) v. Indiana Department of Child Services and Child Advocates, Inc., 18A-JC-2927.

Judge Patricia Riley, writing for the unanimous court, agreed with J.R. that claim preclusion applied to this case. Riley noted J.R.’s mental health issues were diagnosed several months before the 2017 CHINS petition was filed, but those issues were not alleged to the court until the 2018 petition. Similarly, four days after the denial of the 2017 petition, DCS alleged J.R. “still struggles with basic care of infants… .”

“The issues of Mother’s compliance with services in J.L.’s CHINS, her mental health, her parenting abilities, and domestic violence were either already litigated or were known to DCS at the time that it filed and litigated its 2017 CHINS, and thus, re-litigation of those issues was barred by res judicata,” Riley wrote. “… We do not intend to downplay the seriousness of the allegations contained in the 2018 CHINS. However, parents have a right to be free of vexatious and repetitious litigation, and we are concerned with the manner in which DCS litigated this case.”

The appellate court went on to write that it was “troubled” by the timing of Whitaker’s attempt to inspect J.R.’s home and, in a footnote, disagreed with the trial court’s conclusion that Whitaker contacted J.R. about the inspection “pursuant to [the] administrative ruling issued 3/2/18 regarding [the court’s] order finding minor child … was not a child in need of services.”

The case was, thus, remanded for the juvenile court to reconsider the 2018 CHINS petition without reliance on the issues that were or could have been litigated in 2017.

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