INDIANAPOLIS - The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the state's child welfare agency went too far when it took custody of a woman's five children when she had trouble making ends meet during one child's medical crisis.
"We are unwilling to say that every special needs child of a low-income parent is necessarily `in need of services,"' Justice Loretta Rush wrote in the unanimous decision that reversed a Court of Appeals ruling.
The opinion issued Wednesday said there was no evidence the Department of Child Services had to take the children.
However, the department said Thursday it had no choice in the matter.
"DCS believes parents have the right to parent their child when they can do so safely. When a court determines a child is in need of services (CHINS), DCS must follow the court order to provide services that keep the child safe," the department said in a statement.
The case began 2012, when the single mother of five relocated from Gary to Indianapolis to be with her gravely ill special needs child, who was on a ventilator in Riley Hospital for Children. Initially, the mother left her other four children with relatives in Gary, but the entire family later moved to Indianapolis.
The ruling said the children may have needed the state to step in at first, but by the time the department held its hearing on the case, the family no longer needed it to.
The department stepped in and took custody of all five children, holding that while the mother had done her best, she had "received a lot of help and still needs a lot of help," court records said.
"DCS's desire to help the family was understandable, but the facts simply do not justify subjecting the family to State compulsion," Rush wrote.
The Supreme Court said that the woman "had difficulty meeting the demands of a situation that would test the mettle of any parent," but she might have been able to overcome those obstacles if the state had not intervened. In fact, Rush wrote, the department added to the delay in the child's return home from the hospital.
The children were later released from the state's custody.
The 10-page opinion held that the state is justified in intervening only when parents cannot meet the needs of their children, not when they merely have difficulty taking care of them.
"When ... coercion is not necessary, the State may not intrude into a family's life," Rush wrote.