A recent child custody case in Indiana tries to balance the parents’ constitutional rights to free speech and religion against a child’s transgender identity. The state of Indiana removed a child from the parents over how the parents dealt with their child’s transgender identity. Then, the Court of Appeals of Indiana was asked to weigh in.
Custody in the Crossroads of America
The case started in May 2021, when the Department of Child Services (“DCS”) received a report alleging that the mother was verbally and emotionally abusing her 16-year-old child by using rude and demeaning language regarding the teen’s transgender identity. As a result, the teenager had thoughts of self-harm.
Ten days later, DCS received a second report alleging both parents were involved in being verbally and emotionally abusive because they do not accept their child’s transgender identity — and the abuse was getting worse.
A case manager investigated, and reported the child had been suffering from an eating disorder. The other findings included that the parents had withdrawn the child from school and DCS was unaware of the intent to enroll the child in a new school; they had discontinued the child’s therapy; the child did not feel mentally and/or emotionally safe , and would be more likely to have thoughts of self-harm and suicide if returned.
DCS filed a petition alleging the child’s physical or mental condition was seriously impaired or seriously endangered due to the parents’ neglect and/or the child’s physical or mental health was seriously endangered due to injury by the parents’ acts or omissions.
The juvenile court issued an order finding that it was in the child’s best interest to be removed from the home due to the parents’ “inability, refusal or neglect to provide shelter, care, and/or supervision at the present time.”
At the close of a subsequent hearing, the court informed the parties that it would leave in place its earlier order prohibiting the parents from discussing the child’s transgender identity during visitation, found the child needed services and therapy, in which the parents were ordered to participate and ordered that the child would remain in the current home or placement with DCS supervision.
The parents appealed, claiming the order was clearly erroneous, violated their constitutional rights to the care, custody and control of their child, and violated their rights to the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech.
Florida Child Custody
I’ve written about child custody and issues involving the constitution before, primarily between the parents. The case in Indiana however, is not between the child’s parents, but between the parents and the State of Indiana.
Other cases can involve disputes between parents over how to handle the social gender transition of a child. In Florida shared parental responsibility is the preferred relationship between parents. In fact, courts are instructed to order parents to share parental responsibility of a child unless it would be detrimental to the child.
Issues relating to a child’s health are major decisions affecting the welfare of a child. When parents cannot agree, the dispute is resolved in court. At the trial, the test applied is the best interests of the child.
Determining the best interests of a child is based on an evaluation of statutory factors, and one equitable catch-all factor, affecting the welfare and interests of the child and the circumstances of the child’s family.
The statute authorizes one parent to have ultimate responsibility for certain decisions. For example, health care is an area of ultimate responsibility a court can award. When a decision on health goes to trial, the court grants one parent ultimate responsibility to make that decision.
Hoosiers or Abusers?
The Court of Appeals rejected the parents’ religious freedom arguments. The Father testified that the parents were not allowed to affirm their child’s transgender identity, or use their child’s preferred pronouns, based on their sincerely held religious beliefs.
But the appellate court found that the order was based on the child’s medical and psychological needs, not on the parents’ disagreement with the child’s transgender identity. Put differently, the child’s removal was not based on the fact the parents didn’t accept the child’s transgender identity, and their future reunification was not contingent on the parents violating their religious beliefs or being forced to affirm the child’s transgender identity.
Accordingly, the order did not impose a substantial burden on their free exercise of religion. Moreover, the appellate panel found that protecting the child’s health and welfare was a compelling interest justifying state action that is contrary to the parents’ religious beliefs.
The Court of Appeals also rejected the parents’ freedom of speech arguments. The trial court recognized that the child’s eating disorder and self-isolation were connected to the discord at home about the child’s transgender identity.
Accordingly, the trial court’s limitation on the parents from discussing the topic directly targets the State’s compelling interest in addressing the child’s eating disorder and psychological health, as opposed to the content of the parents’ speech itself.
The order was found to be narrowly tailored because it restricted the parents from discussing the topic with the child only during visitation. However, the order permitted the topic to be discussed in family therapy.
Limiting the parents to only discussing the issue in family therapy was seen to allow the family to work on conflict management, so that they will eventually be able to safely talk about it outside of therapy. Accordingly, the order restricting conversation of this topic outside of family therapy was a permissible prior restraint.
The Court of Appeals of Indiana opinion is here.