COA reverses CHINS finding based on ‘exaggerated’ evidence

A CHINS finding against a Hendricks County girl was reversed Thursday after the Indiana Court of Appeals found determined the underlying evidence had been “exaggerated.”

In March 2019, the Indiana Department of Child Services received the first reports that father J.N. had molested his daughter, who was born in 2016. Those allegations were deemed unsubstantiated, as was a second report of molestation made in February 2020.

Meanwhile, mother A.A. was hospitalized for a psychotic episode, so J.N. sought custody of the child. The Hendricks Superior Court, in an underlying paternity action, allowed A.A. to continue caring for the child, but J.N. was authorized to take over her care if A.A. were hospitalized again. That same month, a third report of molesting was made, and this time the report was “substantiated.”

Thus, DCS in June 2020 filed a petition alleging the child was a child in need of services. The CHINS case proceeded in the same court as the paternity action, though the CHINS proceeding was assigned to a senior judge while the paternity action was assigned to a magistrate.

Senior Judge Mary G. Willis determined there was insufficient evidence to prove J.N. had molested his daughter but also concluded her mental condition was seriously endangered by the “contentious” litigation between the parents in the paternity action. Thus, the CHINS court ordered that the child remain in A.A.’s care while J.N.’s access would remain “restricted” until additional services could be provided.

J.N. appealed, and the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed in his favor on Thursday in In the Matter of J.N. (Minor Child), Child in Need of Services and J.N. (Father) v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 20A-JC-2116.

“Father contends the CHINS court exaggerated the conflict between the parents and erroneously determined, without supporting evidence, that the child’s mental health is seriously endangered,” Judge Leanna Weissmann wrote Thursday. “… We agree with Father that the evidence does not support the CHINS court’s judgment.”

While there were legal disagreements between the parents, they weren’t “the intense, never-ceasing, ever-escalating battle the CHINS court describes,” Weissmann wrote. A total of 11 motions were filed in the paternity actions over four years, several of which were routine, she said.

Further, the appellate panel rejected the finding that J.N. and A.A. were trying to “weaponize” the court by filing repeated reports to DCS. Although the molestation allegations against J.N. were “extremely troubling,” the panel held, “(w)ithout evidence of the source of those reports, however, the CHINS court could not reasonable finds Parents made or cause the reports.”

What’s more, Weissmann wrote, the record was “silent” as to the impact of the litigation on the child. She noted DCS had never referred the child to therapy while a psychologist determined she was a “happy and social little girl.”

“We also acknowledge that parental conflict may be damaging to children,” Weissmann wrote for the panel. “However, DCS offered no evidence suggesting J.N.’s mental or physical health was endangered.”

Finally, the COA determined DCS failed to show the child needed care, treatment or rehabilitation that could not be provided without court intervention.

The court pointed to the “failings” attributed to the parents – specifically, A.A.’s mental illness and failure to protect the child from alleged molestation, as well as allegations that J.N. had molested the child, made threatening comments and was violent toward A.A. Those failings, the court held, were either unproven or didn’t justify state intervention.

“As to Father, not only did DCS fail to prove the molestation allegations, but it also did not prove that Father could not properly care for the child. Although Father had been convicted of domestic battery toward Mother for an incident four years earlier, the record contains no other incidents of violence between Mother and Father. … The record contains no evidence that Father ever had been violent toward J.N.,” Weissmann wrote.

“… In short, the record shows no need for further State intervention,” the panel concluded. “Even if such intervention were needed due to parental conflict, the paternity court was well able to ensure the child was protected.”

The case was remanded to the CHINS court to enter judgment in favor of the parents.

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