In the Matter of the Termination of the Parent-Child Relationship of: D.P. and D.P.E. and J.P. (Mother), Appellant-Respondent,
Indiana Department of Child Services, Appellee-Petitioner
Appeal from the Lake Superior Court. The Honorable Thomas P. Stefaniak, Jr., Judge. Cause Nos. 45D06-1403-JT-81, 45D01-1403-JT-82.
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: Joann M. Price, Merrillville, Indiana.
ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: Gregory F. Zoeller, Attorney General of Indiana; Robert J. Henke, David E. Corey, Deputy Attorneys General, Indianapolis, Indiana; Donald W. Wruck, Wruck Paupore PC, Dyer, Indiana.
Bailey, Judge. Robb, J., and Brown, J., concur.
[¶ 1] J.P. (" Mother" ) appeals the trial court's order granting the petition of the Department of Child Services (" DCS" ) to terminate Mother's parental rights as to D.P. and D.P.E. (" the Children" ). Mother raises two issues for our review, which we reframe as a single issue: whether the trial court deprived Mother of due process of law when, in Mother's absence and without representation of counsel, it converted the nature of the proceedings and then terminated her parental rights.
[¶ 2] Finding this a deprivation of due process guarantees, we reverse.
Facts and Procedural History
[¶ 3] D.P. was born to Mother in 2010; D.P.E. was born in 2011. Mother had a learning disability and was unable to care for Children without supervision from a friend or relative.
[¶ 4] On January 22, 2012, Mother was forced out of the home she shared with her aunt. She found shelter in a friend's home, who alerted DCS that Mother was homeless and that Mother could not care for the Children without help. Mother's aunt was aware of this when she ejected Mother from the home. Because of Mother's disability, she received social security disability income which was managed by her aunt. Without the ability to manage her own finances, Mother was unable to finance other housing. DCS removed the Children from Mother's care, and on January 24, 2012, the Children were adjudicated as Children in Need of Services (" CHINS" ).
[¶ 5] Over the course of the CHINS action, the Children were placed into a foster home in which they thrived. Mother used some services, but was unable to obtain permanent housing. She also missed numerous appointments with service providers, often because she would leave Gary for Chicago, Illinois, and find herself without money to return. Mother also missed several hearings and other meetings associated with the CHINS action and DCS-provided services. Beginning in June 2014, Mother ceased appearing for visitation with the Children.
[¶ 6] On June 17, 2014, a permanency plan of termination of parental rights was adopted, and DCS subsequently filed a petition to terminate Mother's parental rights as to the Children. The order adopting the permanency plan provided that on October 3, 2014, a hearing would be conducted on the plan. On August 19, 2014, an initial hearing on the petition was conducted (" the August 19 hearing" ). Mother did not appear for the hearing, and DCS sought to proceed at that time with an evidentiary hearing on the petition. The trial court denied DCS's request, and instead scheduled an omnibus hearing for September 24, 2014.
[¶ 7] On August 21, 2014, DCS sent mail to Mother's last known address to inform her of the upcoming hearing. The letter stated:
Please find enclosed with this letter a copy of the Court Order of August 19, 2014 setting your termination of parental rights matter for Omnibus Hearing on September 24, 2014 at 8:30 p.m.... If you fail to appear, the court will proceed in your absence. You have the right to appear in person or by sending a letter if unable to appear in person. ...