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CHINS Ruling Upheld With a Plea for the Legislature and DCF to Develop Alternatives to Removing Children

In In re M.O., 2015 VT 120 (September 18, 2015), the Vermont Supreme Court upheld a decision that newborn M.O. was a child in need of care or supervision (“CHINS”), placing the child in DCF’s custody.

Issue: Father challenged the family court’s CHINS ruling, arguing that it was not supported by the evidence, that the family court failed to make sufficient findings, and that the family court presumed that parents with disabilities cannot parent. Father also argued that the focus of the findings was on potential risk of harm, which he argued was insufficient for CHINS.

Holding: Noting that this was a close case and the family court’s findings were less thorough than optimal, the Court ruled that there were sufficient findings to show what was decided and why, and that these findings were supported by the evidence. It also found that the evidence showed actual risk of harm that was far more serious than garden-variety new-parent jitters, not just “potential” risk of harm. It also found that the family court did not apply any presumption based on the parents’ disabilities, but based its decision on observed deficits in parenting ability.

Concurrence: Justice Dooley issued a concurrence, discussing the increasing number of CHINS cases confronting DCF and the courts, and the resulting costs in terms of time, resources, and impact on the children. He recommended that DCF and the legislature review cases like this one to determine if there are alternatives to DCF custody. He urged developing less costly interventions for less urgent cases so that we can develop complete, timely and successful responses to the urgent cases.

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