Supreme Court condemns DCS ‘piecemeal litigation’ in CHINS reversal

Criticizing the Department of Child Services for attempting to take a “second bite of the proverbial apple” by filing a successive CHINS petition, the Indiana Supreme Court has reversed a CHINS adjudication and instead dismissed the petition with prejudice.

The reversal was handed down Tuesday by a unanimous court in In the Matter of R.L. (Minor Child); J.R. (Mother) v. Indiana Department of Child Services and Child Advocates, Inc., 20S-JC-296.

The child, R.L., was born Nov. 2, 2017, removed from his parents’ care and alleged to be a child in need of services on Nov. 6 of the same year. In the CHINS petition, the Indiana Department of Child Services alleged R.L.’s parents were not providing a safe and stable living environment and were involved in a separate CHINS proceeding with another child. Services in the separate proceeding, DCS said, were not successful.

The juvenile court, however, determined on March 1, 2018, that R.L. was not a CHINS. The child’s mother, J.R., had not been referred to services related to R.L., the court said, and it was “uncontroverted that Mother had a stable home and was aware of local community resources for her family.” Additionally, because DCS “failed to establish an adequate foundation for relevant testimony and evidence,” the petition was dismissed with prejudice.

The next day, DCS contacted J.R. to request a home inspection, which the mother refused. R.L. was still in foster care, but the family case management did not tell J.R. that R.L. could return home.

Then on March 6, 2018, DCS filed a subsequent CHINS petition as to R.L., once again alleging an unsafe home. The department also cited J.R.’s mental health struggles and her refusal to allow the case manager to inspect her home.

J.R. moved for dismissal on claim preclusion grounds, but her motion was denied, and R.L. was found to be a CHINS.

The Indiana Court of Appeals initially reversed and remanded, finding res judicata barred the second petition because the issues present in the subsequent proceeding were known to DCS during the first proceeding. The appellate court also wrote to say it was “troubled” by how DCS had litigated R.L.’s case.

But the June 2019 decision in Matter of Eq.W., 124 N.E.3d 1201 (Ind. 2019), changed things. In that opinion, the Indiana justices determined the doctrine of claim preclusion applies to CHINS cases.

The state moved for rehearing based on Eq.W. The COA revisited its initial decision and this time ruled that, “Eq.W. has now clarified that DCS may rely on evidence of a parent’s prior conduct in bringing a subsequent CHINS, and, therefore, contrary to this court’s decision, the trial court must be able to rely on that evidence in rendering its determination.”

But “Matter of Eq.W. stands for the proposition that when DCS attempts to bite the proverbial apple, it must do so with intentionality and cannot engage in piecemeal litigation to get subsequent bites at the same apple,” Justice Steven David wrote for the Supreme Court in a Tuesday reversal. “In other words, DCS must have its house in order when it institutes a CHINS proceeding or else it risks dismissal that will bar future actions.

“In our view, DCS has attempted to take the prohibited second bite in this case after it largely failed to make its case during the first CHINS finding,” David continued. “For this reason … we agree with Mother that the second CHINS petition pertaining to R.L. should have been barred by the doctrine of claim preclusion.”

Calling R.L.’s case “the type of piecemeal litigation that Eq.W. sought to prevent,” David said the subsequent CHINS petition duplicated allegations or relied on issues that could have been resolved in the first petition. That included J.R.’s separate CHINS proceeding, uncompleted services and her mental health.

Though those allegations are serious, the justice said, DCS failed to carry its burden in the first petition.

The high court also pointed to the fact that J.R. did not know the petition had been dismissed when she refused the home inspection. To that end, the court said, “we are concerned that Mother’s refusal became part and parcel of the second filing.”

“Finally, our underlying rationale in Matter of Eq.W. is amplified in this case, especially when it comes to procedural protections for children and parents,” David wrote. “… The tactics employed by DCS in this case undermine the confidence parents have in Indiana’s child welfare system. This practice should not be condoned, especially when DCS has vastly superior resources at its disposal to properly and accurately move through each stage of the CHINS proceeding.

“… If there is to be any predictability for parents, children, and the State in these proceedings, we must hold each party properly accountable to their individual responsibilities,” he concluded. “Therefore, Mother’s motion to dismiss should have been granted because under the framework of Eq.W., the subsequent petition should have been barred by the doctrine of claim preclusion.”

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