COA affirms removal of transgender teen from home, rejects parents’ constitutional claims

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A mother and father whose transgender teen was removed from their home due to allegations of abuse has failed to convince the Court of Appeals of Indiana that their rights as parents, including their free speech and religious rights, were infringed upon when the court intervened.

On Friday, the COA published a 28-page opinion in In the Matter of A.C. (Minor Child), Child in Need of Services, and M.C. (Mother) and J.C. (Father) v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 22A-JC-49.

The case started in May 2021, when the Department of Child Services received a report alleging that mother M.C. was verbally and emotionally abusing her 16-year-old child, A.C., by using rude and demeaning language regarding the teen’s transgender identity. As a result, A.C. had thoughts of self-harm.

Ten days later, DCS received a second report alleging M.C. and J.C., the child’s father, were being verbally and emotionally abusive because they do not accept their child’s transgender identity — and the abuse was getting worse.

A DCS family case manager investigated and reported that A.C. had been suffering from an eating disorder but had yet to be evaluated by a medical professional; the parents had withdrawn A.C. from school and DCS was unaware of the family’s intent to enroll A.C. in a new school; A.C. had been in therapy but the parents had discontinued it; A.C. did not feel mentally and/or emotionally safe in the home; M.C. said things such as “[Child’s preferred name] is the b—- that killed my son”; and A.C. “would be more likely to have thoughts of self-harm and suicide if [Child] were to return to the family home due to mental and emotional abuse.”

A week after the second report, DCS filed a proposed child in need of services petition in the Madison Circuit Court, alleging A.C. was a CHINS on two bases: A.C.’s physical or mental condition was seriously impaired or seriously endangered due to the parents’ neglect, and/or A.C.’s physical or mental health was seriously endangered due to injury by the parents’ acts or omissions.

Following a hearing, the court issued an initial/detention order finding that it was in A.C.’s best interest to be removed from the home due to the parents’ “inability, refusal or neglect to provide shelter, care, and/or supervision at the present time.”

In November 2021, the parties informed the court that they had reached an agreement that DCS would dismiss the CHINS-1 and CHINS-2 allegations, unsubstantiate and expunge the record of any reports related to the parents, and proceed under the CHINS-6 statute, Indiana Code § 31-34-1-6. A.C. then admitted to being a CHINS-6 and the parents verified that they had no objection to their child’s admission.

After the hearing, the court issued an order finding that A.C. was a CHINS-6 because the child had an eating disorder, which was “fueled partly because of [Child’s] self-isolation from [the Parents] which is a behavior which is likely to reoccur” if A.C. was placed back in the parents’ home.

At the close of a subsequent dispositional hearing, the court informed the parties that it would leave in place its earlier order prohibiting the parents from discussing the child’s transgender identity during visitation, but confirmed that it could be discussed at family therapy and that the court would reconsider the order when it could be safely discussed outside of therapy.

The trial court entered its dispositional order in which it found A.C. needed services and therapy, in which the parents were ordered to participate. The court also ordered that A.C. would remain in the current home or placement with DCS supervision.

On appeal, the parents argued the dispositional order and the trial court’s prior order on the combined initial and detention hearing were clearly erroneous. They also argued both orders violated their constitutional rights to the care, custody and control of A.C., the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech.

None of those arguments persuaded the Court of Appeals.

First, the COA found the parents’ appeal of the initial/detention order was moot because the CHINS-1 and CHINS-2 allegations in the initial CHINS determination had been dismissed.

Next, judges concluded the trial court’s decision to continue A.C.’s placement outside of the parents’ home was not clearly erroneous.

“In their appellants’ brief, the Parents’ sufficiency of the evidence argument rests largely on their contention that the Dispositional Order is contrary to the CHINS-6 statute because the order is based on parental acts or omissions related to their repudiation of Child’s transgender identity,” Judge Terry Crone wrote. “We have already found no merit to this argument.

“The Parents also contend that they participated in the DCS case management plan, maintained a safe and sanitary home, and sought medical and therapeutic services before the State became involved, and that Mother testified that she believed that they would be able to continue treatment while having Child at home,” Crone continued. “This argument is merely an invitation to reweigh the evidence, which we must decline.”

Third, the COA found the dispositional order did not violate the parents’ constitutional rights.

“The clear and convincing evidence standard applies to termination of parental rights, Ind. Code § 31-34-12-2, not a CHINS proceeding,” Crone wrote.

On the issue of exercising religion, the appellate panel found that protecting the child’s health and welfare was a compelling interest justifying state action that is contrary to the parents’ religious beliefs.

“The CHINS-6 adjudication and the factual basis establish that Child’s health was substantially endangered and that the care, treatment, and rehabilitation would likely not occur without the court intervention,” Crone wrote. “Thus, the State has a compelling interest in protecting Child’s physical and mental health.”

Finally, looking at In re Paternity of G.R.G., 829 N.E.2d 114 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005), the COA concluded the trial court’s temporary restriction on discussion of the child’s transgender identity did not violate the parents’ freedom of speech.

“The trial court recognized that Child’s eating disorder and self-isolation were connected to the discord at home regarding Child’s transgender identity,” Crone wrote. “Thus, the limitation of discussion of this topic directly targets the State’s compelling interest in addressing Child’s eating disorder and psychological health.

“Further, the order is narrowly tailored because it restricts the Parents from discussing the topic with Child only during visitation but permits the topic to be discussed in therapy, which permits the family to work on conflict management so that they will eventually be able to safely talk about it outside family therapy,” he concluded. “Accordingly, we conclude that the order restricting conversation of this topic outside of family therapy is a permissible prior restraint.”

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