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CHINS: Indiana Supreme Court Reverses Termination Of Incarcerated Mother's Rights
Posted in Litigation

On Friday, April 24, the Indiana Supreme Court reviewed the involuntary termination of a mother’s parental rights while she was incarcerated.  The Court concluded that the evidence did not clearly and convincingly demonstrate that the incarcerated mother’s parental rights should be terminated, and reversed the judgment of the trial court.

In Matter of G.Y., when the child, G.Y., was 20 months old, his mother was arrested and incarcerated for delivering cocaine to a police informant a year before the child’s birth.  The mother made multiple attempts to place the child with relatives or friends during her incarceration, but all attempts failed.  The mother consented to a finding that G.Y. was a Child in Need of Services (“CHINS”).  The trial court entered an order directing G.Y. to continue in foster care and ordering the mother to comply with the court’s “Participation Decree.”  Under that decree, the mother was ordered to fulfill certain requirements, many of which are not available to her while incarcerated. 

The State petitioned for involuntary termination of the mother’s parental rights for failure to fully comply with the Participation Decree and so as to provide stability to G.Y.  The trial court granted the involuntary termination, finding that the mother’s likelihood of reoffending, the extended time it would take the mother, due to her incarceration, to comply with the Participation Decree, the strong bond formed between the child and his foster parents, and the child’s need for “immediate permanency” showed it was in the child’s best interests to terminate the mother’s parental rights. 

The Indiana Supreme Court explained, “The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the traditional right of parents to establish a home and raise their children.”  However, the Court recognized that “parental interests are not absolute and must be subordinated to the child’s interests in determining the proper disposition of a petition to terminate parental rights.”  In balancing the needs of the child in this case, the held that none of the four reasons given by the trial court, “either alone or in conjunction with the court’s other reasons,” warranted a conclusion by clear and convincing evidence that termination of the mother’s parental rights was in the child’s best interests.

Justice Boehm dissented, stating the majority opinion should not have re-evaluated the trial court’s four reasons since each “ultimately turns on a judgment as to the credibility of the witnesses” and “an appellate court should be very reluctant to conduct its own assessment of the cumulative effect of these factors on the child and the mother’s likelihood of addressing the problems that led to the dispositional order.”  However, he agreed that “there is an unfairness in a CHINS dispositional order that includes directives to the mother that she is incapable of fulfilling while incarcerated.”

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