Split COA reverses CHINS determination despite mother’s mental illness

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A mother with a history of mental illness and trouble with the law will regain custody of her children after a split panel of the Court of Appeals of Indiana determined there was insufficient evidence to prove her kids were CHINS. But a dissenting judge expressed concern about the children incurring their mother’s “wrath” if left in her care.

J.P. is the mother of five children: B.P., S.P., L.P. and twins Mac.P. and Mad.P. She was on medication for mental health problems but stopped taking the medicine when she became pregnant with the twins, negatively affecting her mental health.

The COVID-19 pandemic began shortly after the twins were born, which eventually led to J.P. ending her therapy sessions. She was also unable to get a prescription for her previous mental health medication, and other medicines that she tried were ineffective.

Then in May 2021, the power went out at J.P.’s Shelby County home. She left the home to pay the electric bill but got in an accident while she was out.

J.P. was arrested for leaving the scene of an accident and reckless driving and was taken to jail.

J.P. had left her oldest child, 15-year-old B.P., in charge of the younger children when she left to pay the electric bill, but the children did not attend school the following day. A school resource officer subsequently discovered that the children were at the home without electricity or adult supervision, so the Department of Child Services was called.

J.P. refused to share any information with a family case manager, so DCS filed a petition alleging her kids were children in need of services. J.P.’s mother came from Kentucky to watch the children.

At an ensuing detention hearing, J.P. used profane language in the Shelby Superior Court. The judge ordered that the children remain with their grandmother until J.P. could prove she was “mentally stable.”

Meanwhile, DCS instructed J.P.’s mother to take the children to live with their aunt in Decatur County. But J.P. and her sister were not on good terms, so when she learned about the placement change, J.P. attempted to take the children from their aunt’s home.

J.P. was subsequently arrested and taken to jail, where she spit on an officer, resulting in an additional charge. The incidents resulted in her spending nearly two months in jail.

Later, at a factfinding hearing in the CHINS case, J.P. was “agitated,” using profane language and interrupting the court on several occasions, including telling the judge to shut up. J.P. was subsequently found in contempt, prompting her to tell the court, “There’s nothing you can do to me beside pull your f—ing gun out and blow my f—ing brains out!”

J.P.’s mother then took the stand and testified that J.P. “loves her kids very passionately. And that’s a lot of what you see, is the frustration that no matter where she has been with her mental illness she has never once harmed her kids.”

Ultimately, the trial court determined J.P. was “in [a] mental or emotional crisis” and, thus, granted the CHINS petition. J.P. was ordered to submit to a psych evaluation, and her visitation with the children was suspended pending the evaluation, aside from video and phone calls.

But a majority of the Court of Appeals reversed the CHINS adjudication, first noting that while not required, “’trial courts’ best practice would be to enter findings on each necessary element,’” which was not done here.

Further, “Indiana law is clear that a parent’s mental illness, without more, is not sufficient to support a CHINS determination,” Judge Edward Najam wrote, joined by Judge L. Mark Bailey.

“Here, there is no question that Mother’s conduct in the courtroom was inappropriate. The trial court was correct to be concerned about the potential for Mother’s mental illness to negatively impact the Children,” Najam wrote. “But DCS had the burden to prove that the Children were actually and seriously endangered as a result of Mother’s mental illness. And, other than the one occasion in May 2021 when Mother was arrested and jailed and the Children were left without adult supervision overnight, DCS did not present evidence that the Children had been impacted in any way by Mother’s mental illness.”

DCS pointed to the contempt finding against J.P., but according to the COA majority, “the proper focus here is upon the condition of the Children, not Mother’s conduct.”

“We cannot ignore the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the mental health of many Hoosiers, but especially those already suffering from mental illness at its onset, such as Mother,” Najam continued. “… The additional stress that Mother had experienced in her life because of her struggle to get mental health treatment early in the pandemic was situational, and the situation has abated. Given Mother’s history of voluntarily seeking treatment for her mental illness, there is simply no evidence that the coercive intervention of the State is needed here.

“… The trial court expressed compassion for Mother, and we agree with the court’s statement that Mother ‘just needs some help right now.’ But there is no evidence that, until Mother gets the help she needs, the Children must be separated from her.”

But Chief Judge Cale Bradford dissented, writing separately that “the abundant evidence of Mother’s propensity to resort to violence (or threats thereof) and/or verbal abuse as her response to seemingly any situation she does not like is sufficient to support an inference that the Children, if they have not already, will sooner or later feel the wrath Mother has directed at just about everybody involved in this case, including the trial court, several DCS employees, Mother’s sister, Mother’s mother, and several law-enforcement officers.”

Bradford pointed to additional evidence, including J.P. “lunging” at a family case manager and threatening to kill several people involved in the case, “including her own mother, whose throat she threatened to slit if she did not return the Children to her.” Also, J.P. admitted in a mental health evaluation that she used methamphetamine daily.

“In my view, the above is sufficient to support an inference that Mother’s mental-health issues and/or substance abuse have already endangered the Children for quite some time (e.g., unstable housing and her refusal to provide medical care), even though there may be no evidence of direct harm as yet,” Bradford wrote. “Because I believe that the record supports the trial court’s determination that the Children are CHINS, I respectfully dissent.”

Responding to Bradford’s dissent, the majority wrote that substance abuse was not at issue in the instant case.

“Indeed, many of the details cited by the dissent, including the allegations that Mother has threatened to kill Grandmother and other people and that she uses methamphetamine daily, are found only in the predispositional report, which was not admitted into evidence,” the majority wrote. “There is no testimony or other evidence on these subjects.”

The case is In the Matter of B.P., S.P., L.P., Mad.P., and Mac.P., Children Alleged to be Children in Need of Services; J.P. (Mother) v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 22A-JC-44.

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