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J.B. v. Indiana Dep't of Child Servs.

Supreme Court of Indiana

February 12, 2014

IN THE MATTER OF S.D., ALLEGED TO BE A CHILD IN NEED OF SERVICES J.B., Appellant (Respondent),
v.
INDIANA DEPARTMENT OF CHILD SERVICES, Appellee (Petitioner)

As Corrected February 14, 2014.

Page 1284

Appeal from the Marion Superior Court, Juvenile Division, No. 49D09-1205-JC-19222. The Honorable Marilyn Moores, Judge. The Honorable Diana Burleson, Magistrate. On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 49A05-1209-JC-488.

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: Amy Karozos, Greenwood, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: Gregory F. Zoeller, Attorney General of Indiana, Robert J. Henke, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, Indiana; Patrick M. Rhodes, Marion County Department of Child Services, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Rush, Justice. Dickson, C.J., Rucker, David, and Massa, J.J., concur.

OPINION

Page 1285

Rush, Justice.

Child in need of services (CHINS) cases aim to help families in crisis--to protect children, not punish parents. Our focus, then, is on the best interests of the child and whether the child needs help that the parent will not be willing or able to provide--not whether the parent is somehow " guilty" or " deserves" a CHINS adjudication. But that help comes not by invitation, but compulsion--imposing the court's " coercive intervention" into family life. And a CHINS adjudication may have long-lasting collateral consequences for the family. The intrusion of a CHINS judgment, then, must be reserved for families who cannot meet those needs without coercion--not those who merely have difficulty doing so.

Here, the evidence reflects that Mother had difficulty meeting the demands of a situation that would test the mettle of any parent--but not that she would be unable to correct her one lingering issue without the " coercive intervention of the court." DCS's desire to help this struggling family was understandable, but the facts simply do not justify subjecting this family to State compulsion. We therefore reverse the trial court.

Facts and Procedural History

This CHINS case stems from Mother's struggles in abruptly relocating to a new city to meet the challenges of a toddler's serious medical crisis, while still providing for four other children. On March 26, 2012, Mother took two-year-old S.D. to an emergency room in Gary because of rapid respirations. The emergency room transferred S.D. to a hospital in South Bend, where she went into cardiac arrest as a result of a previously undiagnosed cardiomyopathy. S.D. was then transferred to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, where S.D. was given a tracheostomy[1] and gastrostomy,[2] and placed on a ventilator.

Initially, S.D.'s four siblings remained with relatives in Gary while Mother remained at the hospital with S.D., where she was actively involved in S.D.'s care. But during the older siblings' spring break in early April, Mother abandoned the family's rental home and belongings in Gary--leaving everything behind and moving the whole family to Indianapolis to be near S.D. For several weeks, the family's housing was transient, and Mother struggled to meet the whole family's needs--failing to enroll S.D.'s school-aged siblings in Indianapolis schools, becoming disengaged from S.D.'s care plan, and spending less time with S.D.

At that point, Mother admitted she had become " overwhelmed" by the situation, and consented to DCS removing the other four children from her care to let her focus on S.D.'s treatment, " without having to worry about the housing and the childcare, and the food, and everything else that she wasn't able to maintain . . . with limited resources." Accordingly, DCS took custody of the children in early May and initiated CHINS proceedings over all five of

Page 1286

them, based on S.D.'s special medical needs and Mother's lack of steady housing and other needs for the children.

By the time of the fact-finding hearing, Mother had moved into a three-bedroom duplex and renovated it adequately for the family to live in--and S.D.'s siblings had been returned to her care several weeks before the fact-finding hearing. Additionally, S.D. no longer required the ventilator, but Riley's hospital policy would not permit her to be released to Mother's care until Mother and a second caregiver completed significant medical training to care for S.D.'s trache-ostomy at home. However, Mother struggled to find a second caregiver and had not finished the final step of the necessary medical training. And finally, Mother had largely spurned DCS's help in identifying sources of social assistance and locating job opportunities, relying instead on financial help from family and pursuing a job lead she had found on her own, and was still unemployed as of the hearing.

At the fact-finding hearing, DCS's position was that while Mother " has done a lot and she has done her best," she had also " received a lot of help and she still needs a lot of help" because (1) S.D. still could not come home without the 24-hour training completed, (2) Mother's ongoing ability to pay rent remained uncertain, and (3) she had not shown an ability to navigate social assistance programs without caseworkers' help. By contrast, Mother's position was that she had needed help when she first moved to Indianapolis, but had also " been very resourceful on [her] own" and chosen not to rely on government assistance while family support was available--so that " everything [they] have here" she had " done on [her] own." Accordingly, Mother reasoned that none of the children were still in need of services.

As to S.D.'s siblings, the trial court agreed with Mother, concluding that even though she " did not have stable housing at the time of the filing of the petition," she " obtained housing and is providing for the children as of the time of the fact-finding." The court therefore released wardship and closed the case as to those children. But the court did find S.D. in need of services because no one in the home had " completed the ...


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