The United States Supreme Court has found that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions as to care, custody, and control of their children.1 This means that a State has no independent right to interfere in the parent-child relationship. Of course, this, like most other things in life, has its limits. A parent who abuses or neglects their child, for example, has no fundamental right to do so. Children in abusive or otherwise dangerous situations can be protected by the State. The State does this by claiming the child is a child in need of services (“CHINS”). The CHINS statutes set out rigid requirements the State must follow due to it being a fundamental right, and if the State fails to follow such requirements, the case could be dismissed. As we will see below in this blog, the Indiana Court of Appeals recently highlighted these requirements In the Matter of M.S.2— the strict requirements the State is held to when it is intervening in a family to protect the constitutional right of parents to raise their children.
In the Matter of M.S., the Indiana Court of Appeals dismissed a CHINS action for the Department of Child Services’ (“DCS”) failure to hold a fact-finding hearing within 120 days. A fact-finding hearing is when the Court decides whether or not a child is, in fact, a child in need of services. According to Indiana Code section 31-34-11-1, a juvenile court must hold a fact-finding hearing within 120 days of the time the petition is filed alleging the child is a CHINS. The relevant facts of the case are as follows: In November of 2017, DCS filed a petition alleging that M.S. was a child in need of services. The Court set the fact-finding hearing for February 23, 2018. The Mother asked the court for a continuance of the February 23, 2018 date in order to prepare her case, and such request was granted. The fact-finding hearing was concluded in April of 2018, with the Court finding the child to be a CHINS. Subsequently, the Mother asked the trial court to dismiss the CHINS finding because the fact-finding hearing was not held within 120 days. Mother’s request for dismissal was denied, and Mother appealed.
On appeal, the Court found the trial court committed error by refusing to dismiss the action. The Court of Appeals ruled that the 120-day time limit is a deadline that must be followed. Specifically, the Court noted, “if we were to allow the deadline to be ignored here, trial courts could habitually set these matters outside the time frame and there would be no consequence whatsoever.” The Court of Appeals also rejected DCS’ argument that the 120-day time limit did not apply because the Mother asked for the continuance. The Court found that the “legislative purpose” of the statute is a maximum 120-day limit, and to allow the parties to agree to more time would defeat that purpose. As such, the Court of Appeals dismissed the CHINS finding.
Finding yourself in the middle of a CHINS proceeding can be intimidating and frustrating. Thus, advocating your legal rights and fighting for your children in such a situation begins with retaining skilled trial counsel familiar with the complex statutes governing CHINS proceedings and DCS’ policies and procedures, and if necessary later, appellate counsel. Such counsel will know the status of developments in the case law, like this case, to protect you. Also, learning about the law and seeking your right to counsel is the key to protecting your right as a parent, as well as being an engaged citizen in our participatory system of government. This blog post on a key new case is written by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who handle all aspects of CHINS proceedings throughout the state. This blog is written for educational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.