Newly-appointed Court of Appeals Judge Cale Bradford delivered an 11-page-opinion in Termination the Parent-Child Relationship of D.J., K.P. and K.R.; Teffany Reaves v. Marion County Department of Child Services (NFP) in which he rebukes Marion County Juvenile Court Judge Marilyn Moores for rendering a decision to terminate the parental rights of the Reaves over three of their children because her trial court decision was so devoid of adequate findings of fact that it "hindered effective judicial review." According to Bradford's decision, DCS removed two of the Reaves' children from their home after an inspection based on an anonymous tip discovered "deplorable and unsanitary conditions" in their home. The record indicated the Reaves complied with "most, if not all, court-ordered services" subsequent to their children's removal and the birth of a third child. DCS, nonetheless, petitioned to terminate their rights but the juvenile court turned down its request. For more than two years, the parents were allowed only supervised visitation of their children when DCS once again petitioned to terminate their parental rights. After a two-day hearing, the trial court terminated the Reaves' parental rights based on the "cleanliness of the home and the safety of the children as main concerns."
Bradford's decision notes that termination is "intended as a last resort" and "is the most extreme sanction a court can impose." "The purpose of terminating parental rights is not to punish the parents but to protect their children," Bradford said. By statute, DCS is required to prove by convincing evidence that "the conditions that resulted in the child’s removal or the reasons for placement outside the home of the parents will not be remedied", or "the continuation of the parent-child relationship poses a threat to the well-being of the child." The findings in the trial court's record simply didn't pass muster according to Bradford. He focused, in particular, on these three findings of the trial court:
Although the parents may be looking for a larger home, the current residence has two bedrooms. It remains a cluttered and unsafe environment for the children. Hazardous choke items are available and cleanliness is an issue. The "Baby Gate" recently acquired would not keep the eldest two children in one room. Safety plugs for wall sockets have been suggested for a long period of time. Parents have moved items of furniture to cover the sockets instead of acquiring plugs . . .
Mother is inconsistent in her interaction with the children. Mother and Father have a new baby born in November 2006 on which Mother provides her main focus. Mother genuinely cares for her children but lacks the skills to appropriately interact, redirect, and provide a safe environment clear of hazards as well as proper supervision . . .
Father was not present for a majority of the visitation sessions, possibly due to work. During [the] times he was present, he would often not be in the room with the children or would sleep. Father exhibits minimal engagement.
Bradford noted the findings made no mention of "filth or unsanitary conditions" in the Reaves home. "[The evidence] showed in the light most favorable to the judgment, that the home was occasionally untidy and cluttered," Bradford wrote. He found equally lacking any evidence that the Reaves lacked parenting skills. "While there was ample testimony pertaining to the varying parenting techniques, none of the evidence made a showing that [the mother] lacked the skills necessary to care for her children so as to warrant the termination of her parental rights," Bradford wrote. "Upon review of the record, it is clear that all evidence relating to Father’s absence from services relates to Father’s absence from home counseling sessions, and there is no evidence in the record suggesting that Father was absent from visitation sessions," Bradford added. He concluded, "[T]he evidence, at most, showed a pattern of an inability to maintain a tidy and uncluttered environment, but the evidence failed to establish that the untidy or cluttered conditions posed any threat to the children’s well-being, and no additional evidence was presented that even alleged that there were reoccurring unsanitary conditions in the home."
What particularly bothered Bradford was the fact that the trial court's decision simply recited the statutory provisions for terminating parental rights and contained "no explanation of how the juvenile court’s factual findings support its judgment." "As such, we are unable to determine whether the juvenile court mistakenly violated the Reaveses’ parental rights." The court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to "enter factual findings that are fully supported by the evidence and to include an explanation as to how its factual findings support its judgment." I would be remiss if I didn't include this damning footnote Judge Bradford included with his opinion:
At trial, the DCS worker assigned to this matter testified that, pursuant to DCS policy, DCS would automatically initiate a CHINS proceeding with regard to T.R. if the juvenile court terminated the Reaveses’ parental rights to the three children at issue even though the home-based counselors contracted by DCS to work with the family testified that the Reaveses were sufficiently caring for T.R. and that they would not recommend T.R. be removed from the Reaveses’ care.
We observe that one of the cornerstones of the judicial process is that each individual case must be decided on its own merits. We are sure that DCS would agree that, in the interest of justice, each individual case must be decided on its own merits and, as such, we are inclined to disbelieve that DCS would employ a seemingly contradictory policy.
Can you believe it? The DCS' own home-based counselors gave a stamp of approval to the Reaves' parenting of a child still in their custody at the same time DCS was petitioning to terminate their parental rights to three other children. And DCS planned to terminate their parental rights to that other child once it got court approval for the other children in spite of the finding of its home-based counselors that the Reaves were sufficiently caring for their other child.
So the juvenile court judge terminates the Reaves parental rights with evidence in the record that they failed to maintain "a tidy and uncluttered environment" for their children. Compare that to the conditions police found in Tajanay Bailey's home, who had twice been removed from her mother's custody and placed in foster care under circumstances involving physical abuse of the child:
Police called to investigate Tajanay’s death were appalled at the condition of the apartment, in the 4100 block of Edgemere Court. It was strewn with food and dirty dishes, said Marcus Kennedy, an IMPD homicide detective. There were cockroaches and mice, he said, and a rank odor that caused investigators to breathe deeply once they emerged into the fresh air.Even the couple’s pet snakes were in bad shape, said Ty Holder, an officer with Indianapolis Animal Care and Control who was called to the scene by police. Holder hauled away two 3-foot-long Ball pythons. Kennedy said he saw lying on a chair in the apartment a certificate indicating Green had recently completed a parenting class sponsored by the Indiana Department of Child Services.Now, are you as outraged as I am? This is simply inexcusable. How could someone conclude it was okay for Tajanay to return to this home? Someone has to be held accountable for a string of bad mistakes which led to the killing of Tajanay Bailey at the hands of an abusive mother and her boyfriend.
A big hat to Indiana Law Blog for catching this decision.