Reversal: Father’s due process rights violated in TPR case

The Indiana Court of Appeals on Thursday reversed the termination of a father’s parent-child relationship after concluding his due process rights had been violated. The Department of Child Services, the appellate court found, did not make reasonable efforts to reunify the father and child.

Before his child was born, T.K. was incarcerated but still made efforts to establish paternity when he knew the child would be born a child in need of services. His efforts to establish paternity and cooperate with the Department of Child Services continued after the child’s birth.

However, the parent-child relationship between T.K. and his child, T.W. was ultimately terminated in the Vanderburgh Superior Court. In T.K.’s appeal of the termination, In Re the Termination of the Parent-Child Relationship of: T.W. (Minor Child) and T.K. (Father) v. The Indiana Department of Child Services, 19A-JT-670, the Indiana Court of Appeals elected sua sponte to consider whether T.K.’s due process rights were protected in his case. It concluded they were not.

On the issue of establishing paternity, the appellate court found T.K. was “caught between a proverbial rock and a hard place” when he received contradictory orders from different government agencies about submitting his paternity paperwork. The panel concluded T.K. did exactly what was required of him to establish paternity, with little to no help from DCS family case manager Brandon Meredith.

“Perhaps most damning of all, it was at this extraordinarily early juncture in Father’s post-incarceration life (and in his involvement with the CHINS case) when FCM Meredith decided that Child would be better off with someone else,” Judge John Baker wrote. “Rather than offering assistance to Father, FCM Meredith wrote him off, and made only limited efforts at reunification from this point forward.”

The appellate court further found it was unreasonable for the FCM to not call T.K. regarding a referral for drug screens when T.K.’s phone number was current, active and readily available. The FCM’s act of mailing drug screen information to an address T.K. no longer resided at was “setting Father up to fail,” it concluded. The same was true, it found, when the FCM canceled T.K.’s visitation after the meeting had already been set, without informing T.K. of the cancelation. The appellate court additionally noted the FCM’s failure to make a parent aide referral to T.K. when he asked for one was a detriment to his efforts to establish paternity.

“Father was released from sixteen years of incarceration. He had no job, no housing, and no real supports. It should have been no surprise to FCM Meredith that Father would, at times, flounder. Father should have been given more assistance in this situation — especially since he explicitly asked for it,” the panel wrote. “Instead, FCM Meredith decided, almost from the outset, that Child would be better off in foster care, making no genuine efforts to provide Father with the support and services he so desperately needed.

“When stepping back and looking at this situation in its totality, we can only conclude that DCS did not make reasonable efforts to reunify Father with Child,” the panel continued. “Likewise, we can only conclude that the insufficient process employed in the CHINS case created a risk of the erroneous filing of a petition to terminate Father’s parental rights to Child, in violation of Father’s due process rights.”

Finding DCS “wholly failed to make reasonable efforts to preserve that relationship,” the appellate court therefore reversed and remanded with instructions to reopen the CHINS case, reexamine the requirements for T.K.’s reunification with his child, and enter a new dispositional order outlining the services he must comply with to effect reunification.

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