Reversal: DCS failed to take reunification steps in TPR case

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An Indiana Court of Appeals panel has reversed for two parents in a termination of parental rights case after finding that reasonable efforts were not made by the Department of Child Services to reunify them with their children.

After the Indiana Department of Child Services received a report that three of J.A. and M.A.’s children were missing excessive amounts of school, a visit to the family’s home was conducted.

The parents’ other children, F.A., L.A., D.A., P.A., and Z.A., were eventually found to be children in need of services based on M.A. and J.A.’s admissions regarding the unsanitary condition of their home and the three eldest children missing 75% of the school year.

Both parents were ordered to participate in recommended programs and permit family case managers and service providers to make announced and unannounced visits to the home, ensure the children attended school, and maintain suitable and safe housing with adequate bedding and food supplies.

The children were twice removed and returned to the home, but both parents attended all scheduled visitations and individual counseling sessions. As both parents made improvements, the children were gradually reintroduced to home by the end of 2018.

By January 2019, DCS requested a case closure after reporting that the children seemed happy and that their permanency plan was reunification. But it quickly backtracked and filed a petition to terminate home placement later that month after J.A. had an altercation with one of the older children.

The trial court eventually terminated parental rights for both J.A. and M.A., finding that they didn’t show an ability to provide adequate care or supervision and the capability to provide a safe or clean home, among other things.

On appeal, both parents asserted that DCS gave them no time to correct the behavior that prompted the termination petition and that J.A. was deprived of due process because of the decision to terminate her rights based on a dispute with her daughter without offering her services to remedy the issue. M.A. also contended that there were no safety concerns before the incident and that insufficient evidence supported parental termination.

In a reversal, the Indiana Court of Appeals sided with the parents in Termination: M A, et al. v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 19A-JT-02570. 

We do not deny the seriousness of the altercation. Nevertheless, DCS does not assert that it kept the CHINS proceedings open in order to reassess the needs of the Children and Parents in light of the altercation and to adjust services to meet the identified needs. Instead, it moved immediately to terminate Parents’ parental rights as to the five Children, filing termination petitions on February 5, 2019 and May 1, 2019,” Judge Elaine Brown wrote for the appellate panel.

“We are mindful that termination of parental rights is the most extreme sanction and ‘intended as a last resort, available only when all other reasonable efforts have failed,’” it continued. “We cannot conclude, in totality and under the circumstances, that DCS made all reasonable efforts to reunify Parents with the Children following the altercation with De.A.”

Thus, in light of DCS’s actions following the altercation and its burden of proof, the appellate court reversed and remanded for reinstatement of the CHINS cases and reassessment consistent with its opinion.

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