INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana Supreme Court justices Thursday weighed the interests of a 9-year-old boy awaiting adoption against the parental rights of his previously incarcerated parents.
No decision was made in the case of J.M., a juvenile living in foster care in Allen County.
The boy’s mother and father were recently released from prison after serving sentences for conspiring to deal methamphetamine and other charges.
They appealed a November 2008 Indiana Court of Appeals decision that found there was no guarantee either parent would be able to care for J.M. after their release, and terminated their parental rights.
That decision overturned a February 2008 ruling by Allen Superior Court-Family Division Judge Charles Pratt denying the termination. Pratt said then that the only basis for the termination was the parents’ incarceration and that they should be given an opportunity to establish a stable and appropriate life.
J.M. was removed from the mother’s care in April 2004 by Montgomery County officials and lived with his aunt and grandmother in Vermillion County, but they grew tired of caring for him, according to court documents.
After a brief stint in foster care, the boy was sent to live with a paternal uncle and aunt in Allen County, in spite of objections by local officials regarding the danger of child abuse in the home.
Within months, the boy was removed from that home because of allegations of abuse. He was placed back in foster care.
According to court records, the boy’s mother wrote him letters every week from prison but saw him only a few times, and his father had not communicated with the child since 2005.
"They hardly know this child. This child hardly knows them," said Daniel Pappas, the child’s attorney.
He told the Supreme Court justices Thursday that the child’s need for permanency outweighs his parents’ rights. And he focused on the repeated criminal conduct of the parents when the child was in their care.
But attorneys Tom Allen and Richard Williams – representing the mother and father, respectively – said the parents are now out of prison with jobs and housing and want to reunite with their child. The couple are not married.
They argued that a federal rule triggered a mandatory termination petition by the Allen County Department of Child Services based solely on how long the child had been in foster care.
And they noted when the petition failed it was Pappas who appealed, not the state child protective agency.
Allen said there is a false impression that foster care has failed the child.
In fact, he said the boy is doing well in foster care and there is no harm in keeping him there for a bit longer while finalizing a reunification plan with his parents.
Williams also assured the justices that the boy’s father is on probation, receives random drug tests and has not re-offended.
He also said there are no allegations that the parents specifically did anything wrong with regard to the child’s care.
Justice Brent Dickson candidly told Pappas during the argument that he was struggling with the case because the original decision not to terminate the parental rights was made "by one of the state’s most thoughtful juvenile judges."
And he also pointed out that Indiana’s penal system is supposed to be based on reformation – not vindictive justice.