Appeals court affirms TPR despite trial court’s error

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A trial court’s error in denying a mother’s motion to separate witnesses during her termination of parental rights hearing was harmless, and therefore reversal was not mandated, the Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled.

After deciding she was overwhelmed in caring for her three children, mother B.L. sent her two eldest children, Ko. and Ki, to live with her sister. At some point, Ko. was placed with another family friend, and neither of the children lived with their mother again for another three years. They were legally removed from B.L.’s care in 2016 and adjudicated as children in need of services in January 2017.

When the Department of Child Services filed to terminate B.L.’s parental rights to both Ko. and Ki., only one witness testified before the termination hearing was resumed in August 2018. At that point, B.L. moved to additional separate witnesses, but the trial court denied the motion because her “time to move for separation of witnesses ha[d] passed.”

The trial court ultimately terminated B.L’s parental rights, but the Indiana Court of Appeals determined the motion to separate witnesses should have been granted.

“Mother requested a separation of witnesses order at the outset of the second day of the termination hearing before any other witnesses had been called. Accordingly, the timing of Mother’s motion did not affect the fundamental fairness of the proceeding and the juvenile court should have granted the motion and ordered separation of the witnesses,” Judge Margret Robb wrote for the appellate panel.

Despite finding an error, the appellate panel concluded that the error was harmless and therefore a reversal was not necessarily mandated. The impact of the error was minor, it concluded, because only B.L.’s sister or family therapist Angela Stone would be impacted by the erroneous ruling. However, neither would be likely influenced by the testimony of others, it concluded.

Second, the appellate court found overwhelming evidence supporting the juvenile court’s judgment independent of witness testimony.

“As the children had already been out of Mother’s care for three years by the time DCS became involved in this case, and as Mother’s participation in services during the CHINS proceedings was minimal, we conclude the State has shown by overwhelming evidence that the juvenile court’s error in denying her motion for separation of witnesses was harmless because in light of all the evidence, it did not affect her substantial rights,” Robb concluded.

The appellate court therefore found that although the trial court erred in denying the motion for separation of witnesses, the error did not result in any prejudice to B.L. because of the overwhelming evidence supporting the juvenile court’s judgment.

The case is In re the Involuntary Termination of the Parent-Child Relationship of: K.L. and K.J.L. (Minor Children), and B.L. (Mother) v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 19A-JT-1211.

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