IN justices affirm mother was afforded due process during virtual TPR hearing

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A mother whose parental rights were terminated after a virtual hearing via Zoom has lost her appeal at the Indiana Supreme Court, which instead adopted as precedent a Court of Appeals analysis of how the mother’s due process rights were impacted by the virtual proceedings.

The high court granted transfer and adopted the Court of Appeals of Indiana’s due process opinion in a Wednesday per curiam decision in In re the Termination of the Parent-Child Relationship of I.L., O.L., V.N., and M.P.N. (Minor Children) and S.T. (Mother); S.T. (Mother) v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 22S-JT-77.

Mother S.T. had challenged the termination of her parental rights to four children ranging in age from 3 to 10 years old. The children had previously been found to be children in need of services due to S.T.’s substance abuse, and issues in the home continued after the CHINS adjudication.

When the Monroe Circuit Court held a hearing on the termination petition in January 2021, the parties proceeded virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The use of Zoom was permitted under the Indiana Supreme Court’s May 13, 2020, emergency order.

However, a series of logistical issues arose during the proceeding.

First, one of S.T.’s counselors answered three questions before the court realized he was appearing from a car with another person in it. Other witnesses admitted they looked at personal notes during their testimony.

Technological issues also arose, with the state struggling to timely make an objection because the lawyer’s audio was muted. Also, the video froze at one point, cutting out part of S.T.’s testimony.

The trial court addressed each issue as it happened, including admonishing witnesses not to use notes and instructing other witnesses not to testify until they were alone. The court also made allowances for the technological troubles.

“We do not doubt that conducting a termination hearing by remote technology could — in some situations — violate a parent’s due-process rights,” COA Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote in an October opinion. “… Here, however, Mother was afforded substantially similar procedures as would have been available to her at an in-person hearing.”

In adopting the Court of Appeals’ opinion as precedent, the high court noted, “As to Mother’s due process argument, the Court of Appeals weighed the serious safety concerns regarding in-person hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic; the important State interest in prompt adjudication of child welfare matters; and the risk of error created by the remote nature of the hearing. It found that any errors in the trial proceedings did not deprive Mother of an opportunity to be heard in a meaningful time and manner, noting that each of the errors Mother identified on appeal was promptly addressed by the trial judge.

“… Being duly advised and having concluded the Court of Appeals correctly decided the due process issue, we grant transfer and expressly adopt and incorporate by reference Part I of the Court of Appeals’ opinion as Supreme Court precedent,” the justices concluded, citing Indiana Appellate Rule 58(A)(1). “In all other respects, we summarily affirm the Court of Appeals opinion.”

S.T. had also raised a sufficiency-of-the-evidence argument to the Court of Appeals — which ruled against her on that issue — but she did not renew that argument at the Supreme Court.

All justices concurred.

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