COA calls out court that ‘respectfully disagrees’ in CHINS case

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has dismissed as moot a CHINS appeal while also calling out a trial court magistrate and judge for disregarding the appellate court’s decisions regarding the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children.

After the father of then-15-year-old M.W. was found to be abusing substances and stated he no longer wanted M.W. living in his Evansville home, the child was removed by the Department of Child Services, which subsequently filed a child in need of services petition.

M.W.’s parents were divorced, and mother S.R. lived in Chicago at the time. When S.R. asked if she could come get her child, she was informed that she needed to file a petition to modify custody or would need to undergo an investigation under the ICPC.

The child was later determined to be a CHINS, and S.R. asked the Vanderburgh Superior Court to reconsider the probable cause as to herself, dismiss the CHINS case and place M.W. with her in Illinois. Although DCS stated there were no allegations against S.R., the trial court ultimately denied the child’s placement with mother without further investigation, specifically, undergoing the ICPC process.

After S.R. later appealed, the trial court granted DCS’s motion to terminate its wardship of M.W., as mother had completed the ICPC process and M.W. was placed with her. Thus, the CHINS case was closed, but S.R.’s appeal still remained.

Her argument alleged that the trial court erred in requiring an approved ICPC order prior to placing M.W. with S.R., the child’s biological parent. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed, noting that it has made clear that the ICPC does not apply to placement with an out-of-state parent.

“Here, Magistrate (Renee) Ferguson said, ‘The Court is well aware of the Appellate Court’s position on an ICPC and respectfully disagrees with their position.’ Then, Judge (Brett) Niemeier issued an order signing off on her decision.

“The decisions of this Court are binding upon trial courts. We caution Magistrate Ferguson and Judge Niemeier that the Indiana Code of Judicial Conduct requires judicial officers to uphold the law,” Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote for the appellate court. “Vertical stare decisis requires judicial officers to follow this Court’s opinions despite their own personal opinions otherwise.”

The appellate court ultimately found that because S.R. completed the ICPC, M.W. was already placed with her and the CHINS case was closed, the court could therefore not provide effective relief on the issue. Thus, the appeal in In the Matter of: M.W., a Child Alleged to be in Need of Services, S.R. (Mother) v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 18A-JC-2452 was dismissed as moot.

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