“We are well aware that DCS and the courts are overwhelmed with the growing numbers of CHINS cases statewide. All would be better served if the system focused its time, efforts, and resources on the families who really need them. This one did not.”
A recent ruling by the Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed yet another in a series of overturned rulings concerning Child in Need of Care cases rendered by the same judge..
It began on December 12, 2014, when the Indiana Department of Child Services filed a petition against a mother alleging that all four of her children were “Children in Need of Services” – more commonly known as a CHINS – “after H.G.’s meconium tested positive for marijuana at the time of his birth. The mother, however, tested negative for marijuana at the time of H.G.’s birth.”1
A factfinding hearing was held on April 10, 2015, at which time DCS stipulated that the Mother began completing random drug screens in January 2015, and that she had completed a screen approximately every two weeks since. The Court of Appeals noted that, “All of her screens, from beginning to end, were negative.”
Nevertheless, during the hearing juvenile court judge Marilyn A. Moores found all four of the children to be CHINS.
The juvenile court held a dispositional hearing on May 1, 2014, “ordering Mother to participate in home-based therapy, home-based case management, and random drug screens.” Presumably, these were among the “services” that her children were “in need” of under the CHINS finding.
The mother appealed the juvenile court’s adverse ruling, and the appellate judges unanimously reversed the juvenile court’s decision. The Court of Appeals noted that the General Assembly “has established a statutory procedure for determining when children are in need of the State’s services and has specified the type of evidence required. In this case, however, the juvenile court found four children to be in need of services when the record is devoid of evidence supporting such a finding.”
In its legal opinion, the Court found that the Indiana Department of Child Services had failed to prove any of the three conditions that must be met in a CHINS determination: 1) that the children were seriously endangered, 2) that the parents were unable or unwilling to properly care for the children, and that 3) the coercive intervention of the juvenile court was necessary.
In its ruling, the Court of Appeals explained that it is DCS’s burden “to prove that the parent’s actions or inactions have seriously endangered the child, that the child’s needs are unmet, and that those needs are unlikely to be met without State coercion. We find the evidence in this record wholly insufficient to support a single one of these elements.”
The Court noted also that the relevant statute concerning the positive marijuana result at H.G.’s birth arguably applied only to one of the mother’s children – the most recently born H.G. – however, “for unknown reasons, DCS alleged all of the children to be CHINS under this statute as well.”
The Court found that there was no evidence that H.G. was a “Child in Need of Services” as defined by the relevant statues, and that “the record is devoid of evidence that H.G. needed any care, treatment, or rehabilitation that he was not receiving. There is simply no evidence, anywhere, that this infant’s needs were not being met in every way.”
The Court of Appeals finally noted,
We are well aware that DCS and the courts are overwhelmed with the growing numbers of CHINS cases statewide. All would be better served if the system focused its time, efforts, and resources on the families who really need them. This one did not.
CITING A PRECEDENT
In early 2014, I’d posted an account of a rather similar set of events involving the very same juvenile court judge. In “Indiana Supreme Court Provides Favorable Ruling in CHINS Case,” I described an Indiana Supreme Court ruling overturning a CHINS determination that was similarly found to be wanting for evidence.
I find it somewhat ironic, but not altogether surprising, that the Indiana Court of Appeals would draw from a recent opinion issued by its own Supreme Court that involved the very same judge that presided over the above case. Marion Juvenile Court judge Marilyn Moores.2
Judging Judge Moores
These are not the only CHINS cases involving juvenile court Judge Marilyn Moores. In a blistering opinion issued in May of this year, the Indiana Supreme Court overturned another of Moore’s CHINS cases because of what the justices said were repeated derogatory remarks made by Judge Moores during the legal proceedings.3
In this case, DCS officials filed a petition in May of 2013, claiming that a teen-aged girl was a Child in Need of Services. The teen’s mother agreed with DCS, however the father disagreed, There really isn’t much more of any substance in the case than that.
According to the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling, judge Moores had expressed her impatience with the case during the first few minutes of the hearing. Judge Moores expressed her impatience with the discussion of a potential overlap between custody in the parent’s divorce case and the CHINS proceeding.
“My hair hurts,” judge Moores said early on.
Later in the proceeding, Moores called the parents’ dispute “completely ridiculous and retarded,” telling them to figure it out, so that their daughter wouldn’t be affected by “the stupidity that is going on in both of your lives,”
During the next hearing, judge Moores went so far as to tell the parents that, “Neither of you knuckle heads can get this done, shame on both of you.” It was at that point that Moores determined that the teen was a child in need of services, over the father’s objections.
The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed Moores’ decision, ruling that her statements were blunt, but that they didn’t call her impartiality into question, or coerce the father. But the Supreme Court disagreed. The Court reversed the CHINS determination completely, saying her remarks and conduct “breached the court’s duty of impartiality,” and that her comments amounted to the coercion of the father.
The Supreme Court also said the Moores displayed a “repeated implication of being unreceptive and hostile” to the parents.
One may well imagine that it is disquieting for a judge to have her ruling overturned. Having the case overturned while the Court of Appeals cites a precedential case in which the same judge was involved must be rather an embarrassment.
We can only hope that Magistrate Danielle Gaughan – who decided the most recent juvenile case with her order being approved by Judge Moores – would derive a valuable lesson concerning the laws that both are sworn to uphold.
1. Typically, one child would be adjudicated as a “Child in Need of Services.” In this case, the Department inappropriately pulled all four of the children under this rather threadbare umbrella.