In re the Involuntary Termination of the Parent-Child Relationship of G.P., a Minor Child, and His Mother, J.A. v. Indiana Department of Child Services and Child Advocates, Inc. involves a lengthy discussion of the right to counsel in CHINS cases. The Court found that a juvenile court must appoint counsel for a parent in a CHINS case if requested and if the parent is found to be indigent.
In this case, the mother chose to proceed pro se at the beginning of the CHINS case when the child was adjudicated to be a child in need of services. Later, J.A. requested that an attorney be appointed to assist her as the CHINS case proceeded. The juvenile court found that the mother was indigent and qualified for representation at the public expense, but no attorney was appointed in the CHINS case. Eventually, an attorney was appointed in a separate case that was filed by the Indiana Department of Child Services seeking to terminate the mother’s parental rights.
There are three statutes related to the right to counsel in CHINS cases. IC 31-32-4-3(b) states that “[t]he court may appoint counsel to represent any parent in any other proceeding.” IC 31-32-4-1(c) states “[t]he following persons are entitled to be represented by counsel… [a]ny person designated by law.” IC 31-34-4-6(a) states that “The department [of child services] shall submit written information to a parent, custodian, or guardian of a child who is alleged to be abused or neglected regarding… [t]he right to: (A) be represented by an attorney… at each court proceeding on a petition alleging that the child is a child in need of services. The parent, guardian, or custodian has the right to be represented by a court appointed attorney… upon request of the parent, guardian, or custodian if the court finds that the parent, guardian, or custodian does not have sufficient financial means for obtaining representation as described in IC 34-10-1.”
The Court found that the mother’s due process rights were violated and “it was fundamentally unfair to tell J.A. she would receive appointed counsel, as she was entitled by statute, and then not follow through with the appointment but instead continue with proceedings challenging her fitness as a parent.” The CHINS proceeding is a necessary first step to any termination of parental rights case. Therefore, in this case, both the CHINS proceeding and the subsequent termination of parental rights proceeding were “flawed” and the termination of parental rights judgment was vacated.
The subsequent adoption proceeding was not before the Court and was not addressed other than in a footnote noting that if the adoption was based on the termination of parental rights, then J.A. may have grounds to seek relief from judgment in the adoption case.