A recent Indiana Court of Appeals opinion could affect how judges handle cases involving some parents of children with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities.
Last month, the appellate court reversed a juvenile court judge's order that a Marion County parent had neglected her teenage daughter, identified in court documents as V.H. The woman had refused to pick up her daughter from an emergency shelter until the girl received counseling services, court records state.
"It is apparent that mother, who is a working single parent, was addressing V.H.'s behavioral issues," Judge John Baker wrote in the appellate court's unanimous opinion. "This is something for which we should applaud parents rather than condemn them through coercive action."
Legal experts say the court's opinion may affect the Indiana Department of Child Services' policy of substantiating neglect findings against some parents in order to help them obtain services for their children with mental illness or a developmental disability.
DCS Director James Payne previously told The Times the agency sometimes will use a portion of state law that says parents are "unable" to provide necessary care as legal justification to help them secure services. It is used as a last resort, Payne said.
A Times investigation found there is a multi-agency failure to provide more intensive services for children with severe mental illnesses or disabilities. Children who do not receive needed services may enter the court system as juvenile delinquents or as children in need of services. Some mental health professionals have advised parents to "abandon" their children in order to secure services.
In the case heard by the Court of Appeals, a Marion County woman had twice called police on her teenage daughter after the girl became physically aggressive. Police contacted DCS officials, who initiated an assessment on the family as required by state law.
After the second incident, the woman refused to bring her daughter home until the girl received counseling, court records state. The teenager had been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder.
DCS filed a petition alleging the girl was a child in need of services, also known as CHINS, because of the mother's failure to provide her with necessary care, court records state.
The juvenile court judge granted DCS' CHINS petition, which resulted in a finding of neglect against the mother. The Marion County woman was ordered to participate in services and pay DCS $25 per week for reimbursement of service costs, court records show.
The Court of Appeals overturned the judge's finding and order for the woman to participate in services. In the opinion, Baker referenced the Marion County woman's efforts to help her daughter.
"Indeed, even after DCS became involved, (the) mother contacted her primary care physician on her own and scheduled V.H. for a psychological evaluation after she learned that DCS could not schedule one... for three to six months," Baker wrote.
Attorney Amy Karozos, who represented the mother in the appellate case, said her client did not neglect her now 17-year-old daughter.
"I would hope (this opinion) would make DCS think about it before bringing a CHINS case against a family that hasn't neglected their child," she said.
DCS spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland said the agency will not change any of its policies relating to CHINS cases as a result of the Court of Appeals opinion. She said DCS' attorneys interpreted the judge's ruling as a need for more evidence.
"It looks like DCS tried to help, tried to provide services," McFarland said.
Joel Schumm, a clinical professor of law at Indiana University's Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, said the opinion is written in a way that shows the judges' concern about pursuing CHINS proceedings against parents who are doing everything they can to help their children.
"You can tell the judges are not happy with the current state of things," he said.
Schumm said he believes juvenile court judges will take note of the appellate opinion, and some may become unwilling to enter a CHINS finding. He said it puts judges in a difficult position because they may have parents before them who desperately need help.
"If DCS cannot pursue CHINS cases, then the child and the family end up in a position where they can’t get help that they need," Schumm said.
Lake Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura said she will not alter how she handles CHINS hearings because of the Court of Appeals opinion. The judge said she believes the Marion County case is too fact-sensitive to prompt change.
"It's a reminder that (court) dispositions must be fashioned to meet the needs of families," she said.