Reversal: Court erred in CHINS findings, placing kids in foster care

An out-of-state father whose children were placed in foster care after one of them was injured during a domestic dispute between their mother and her boyfriend was wrongly denied an opportunity to parent his children, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.

E.P. is the father of now 15-year-old J.P. and 10-year-old M.P., but after their mother moved the children from his home state of Georgia to Indiana around 2009, she ceased communicating with him. E.P. reinitiated contact with his children in 2019, including sending $400 a month in child support, and he spoke regularly with them by phone.

But after the domestic dispute that put J.P. in the hospital in September 2019 after she “was inadvertently struck on the wrist with a baseball bat, … (the Indiana Department of Child Services) received a report of neglect after Mother left the Children at home alone and attempted to stab her now ex-boyfriend. That same day, DCS removed the Children from Mother’s home,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote. “The following day, DCS filed a CHINS petition alleging, among other things, that Father ‘ha[s] not demonstrated an ability and willingness to appropriately parent the children, and/or they are unable to ensure the children’s safety and well being [sic] while in the custody and care of [Mother].’”

The children were deemed in need of services and placed in foster care, where they remained despite E.P.’s stated desire to care for them. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed and remanded to Marion Superior Court in CHINS: E.P. v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 20A-JC-1268.

“We understand the need to initially place the Children in foster care, until Father could be notified of the events requiring removal of the Children from Mother’s home. Nevertheless, juvenile courts must be careful not to simply export circumstances warranting emergency removal into considerations about whether ongoing coercive intervention of the State is truly necessary,” Tavitas wrote.

In this case, the court noted, a DCS assessment worker testified that “DCS considered the most significant barrier to placement with Father to be the fact that Father lived in Georgia.” Father was gainfully employed and could provide for the children, according to the evidence.

“The record reveals that Father maintained a positive relationship with the Children from the moment he re-obtained contact with them and that they spoke on the phone regularly, often daily. J.P. was adamant that she wanted to be placed with Father. Father voluntarily provided four hundred dollars a month in child support to Mother and had already taken steps to secure a larger residence by the date of the fact-finding hearing. Every worker or therapist that had contact with Father agreed that he has been compliant and willing to do whatever is required in order to take care of the Children,” Tavitas wrote.

“DCS’s reservations were based on little more than speculation and its own failure to properly investigate. A CHINS proceeding, however, is no place for conjecture,” she continued.

“… DCS failed to prove that court intervention was necessary. Because we conclude that DCS failed to prove that the Children are CHINS by a preponderance of evidence, we reverse the juvenile court’s CHINS determination, and, accordingly, we need not reach Father’s challenge to the Children’s placement in foster care via DCS.”

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