Wearing a locket around her neck, Jenna Hullet addressed the Indiana Senate Judiciary Committee.
Hullet told the story of her cousin, 4-year-old Judah Morgan, whose memory is honored by the locket. Judah lived with Hullet’s family from the time he was 4 months old until April 2021.
That month, Judah was returned to his parents, Mary Yoder and Alan Morgan. In October 2021, each were charged in connection with their son’s violent death.
“For four years, Judah was in our care,” Hullet told lawmakers. “We tried to warn DCS and the CASA and the judge about our fears … but no one would listen.”
Hullet traveled to the Indiana Statehouse on Wednesday to testify in support of Senate Bill 410, a measure designed to give “kinship caregivers” like Hullet the right to intervene in termination of parental rights cases.
According to bill author Sen. Mike Bohacek, R-Michiana Shores, Hullet’s family did not go through the process to become foster parents, which would’ve entitled them to both money and intervention rights. SB 410 would give kinship caregivers like Hullet’s family the right to intervene “at any stage” of a TPR case, even if they are not licensed foster parents.
Judah was found dead on Oct. 9, 2021, six months after he was returned to his parents’ care. According to Bohacek, the child was kept locked in a basement and was deprived of food and water before his father killed him and left the house, leaving Judah’s remains in the home with his three siblings.
Online court records indicate Alan Morgan has been charged with murder, five counts of felony neglect and one count of cruelty to an animal, while Yoder has been charged with two counts of felony neglect and one count each of cruelty to an animal and failure to make a report. Both are set for a jury trial in October.
But to Hullet, the charges came too late. In her view, the situation could have been prevented.
Specifically, Hullet told the committee that had her family had legal representation, their concerns would have been listened to.
The original version of SB 410 provided that kinship caregivers who intervene in a TPR case would be entitled to taxpayer-funded counsel. That provision was stripped in an amendment endorsed by the Judiciary Committee, though Bohacek said he wants to revisit the issue if the bill advances to the Indiana House.
Also stripped from the bill was a provision holding that a judge who presides over a child’s child-in-need-of-services case could not preside over the child’s TPR case. Bohacek said committee chairwoman Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, an attorney, advised him against that provision, and he came to agree with her that it was bad policy.
While SB 410 passed the committee unanimously, the debate was lengthy and at times contentious.
Among those testifying were Hullet, two Indiana judges and the Indiana Public Defender Council — but not the Indiana Department of Child Services.
Brown blasted DCS for failing to address the bill in committee, saying its absence was “really, really disappointing.” She added that Judah’s case was not one in which he was “missed” by the child welfare system.
“They were totally in the clutches of the system, and it happened,” she said.
Brown also criticized the Indiana Public Defender Council for its “soft opposition” to the bill.
Michael Moore, assistant executive director of the council, said his organization has been advocating to give relatives a right of intervention sooner in the legal process, during the CHINS proceeding. The goal of any legislative change, he said, should be to promote earlier permanency for a child in the system.
The two Indiana judges who testified on the bill offered a similar message: Make sure the legislation is done right.
Wayne Superior Judge Darrin Dolehanty testified in his capacity as president of the Indiana Judges Association. He raised concerns about the automatic appointment of counsel for kinship caregivers, noting the supply of lawyers is low and those who take on CHINS and TPR cases are already overworked.
Dolehanty also expressed concern about allowing kinship caregivers to intervene at any stage of the proceeding.
He presented the scenario of holding a TPR hearing and beginning the process of drafting his order, all before a kinship caregiver intervenes. In that situation, he said, he would have to schedule a hearing just to tell the caregiver that there is nothing left to intervene into — evidence is closed and witnesses have gone.
That comment sparked a debate about the best way to give kinship caregivers access to the court system.
Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, noted that even if the law changes to allow kinship caregivers to intervene in TPR cases, those caregivers still have to file an intervention petition that follows a specific court’s rules. If a caregiver doesn’t know those rules, then the law change doesn’t help them.
“You might think you know the law, but you don’t know the rules,” Taylor said. “Where we need to focus for cases like this is when the life of a child is in jeopardy, there should be an exception (to court rules) for all CHINS and TPR cases.”
Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, floated the idea of only allowing a kinship caregiver to intervene within seven days before trial. Dolehanty didn’t reject that proposal, but he did note that ruling on a petition to intervene can take several days depending on the circumstances, and if the petition is granted, the caregiver could then want to engage in discovery, which further delays the proceedings.
Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, noted judges are required to rule in CHINS and TPR cases within a limited number of days, but those deadlines can be complicated by factors such as sick witnesses or motions to intervene. He suggested that Dolehanty submit a proposal for the Legislature to consider next year that could give judges more discretion to continue such cases if circumstances warrant it.
Judge James Humphrey of the Dearborn and Ohio circuit courts testified on behalf of the Indiana Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. He said TPR cases are starting to be known as the “new death penalty cases” given the high stakes of the outcome.
Humphrey largely echoed Dolehanty’s comments, but he added another suggestion: Send the issue to the same summer study committee as what is considered in Senate Bill 180.
“My suggestion is that we consider moving this into that summer study commission so we can review these issues and make sure that we do what we need to do and do it the right way,” Humphrey said.
Much of the committee discussion came from lawyer-legislators debating the proper language for the amended statute, but Bohacek sought to return the committee to the bigger issue.
“I’m not a lawyer, and they’re not a lawyer,” Bohacek said, pointing to the Hullet family. “You’re dealing with a child and dealing with family members who are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.”
The senator pledged to work with the lawyers on the committee to revise the language in a second reading amendment. The bill was not yet on the Senate calendar at IL deadline.