Posted on January 25th, 2011 No comments
In this case, Father’s rights were terminated under MCL 712A.19b(3)(a)(ii) – desertion for 91 or more days – and MCL 712A.19b(3)(g). The Father lived in Mississippi and had scant contact with the child. Mother had custody of the child and was brought into the court’s jurisdiction based on allegations against Mother. The plan was reunification with Mother. Father was not active in the case because he wished for reunification to proceed with Mother.
At some point, Mother voluntarily terminated her parental rights. DHS failed to provide the father a case service plan, a home visit, a referral for services, and in general made no other efforts at reunification until the mother’s rights were terminated. By failing to look at possible reunification with father, despite his interest, there was a failure to make reasonable efforts toward reunification.
A failure to make reasonable efforts at reunification may prevent petitioner from establishing the statutory grounds for termination. In re Newman, 189 Mich App 61 (1991). The court also found termination on abandonment was premature because Father regularly spoke to and visited the child before the trial court suspended visitation.
Finally, the Court found that the trial court erred in its best interest’s finding. The only evidence presented was 3 supervised visits, which went well. The Court held that the trial court had an insufficient basis to find termination of Father’s parental rights was in the child’s best interests.
The Court remanded for further evaluation and services.
You can view or download the case here: In re Morrow
Posted on December 29th, 2010 No comments
I find this case interesting because it results from an appeal by the L-GAL on behalf of the minor child. The child came into care on a temporary wardship petition due to allegations against mother and father. The children were initially brought into care due to some pretty severe environmental neglect and mental health issues on the part of mother. After the Court assumed jurisdiction, both parents showed evidence of improvement. There was still an issue of the home’s cleanliness , but the parents had made significant improvements.
A supplemental petition was filed under MCL 712A.19b(3)(c)(i), (g) and (j). The trial court determined that the evidence failed to show that the conditions that led to the adjudication continued to exist and that the parents had complied with the parent-agency agreement. The trial court also returned the child to the parents following the denial of the petition to terminate their parental rights.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court finding that there was no clear error in the Court’s determination that a statutory basis was not established. The Court also determined that the court did not abuse its discretion in returning the children home.
At the end of the day, I think this case benefited from the trial court’s findings and the application of the clear error and abuse of discretion standards. This allowed the Court to give a great deal of deference to the trial court’s decision. The condition of the home was still poor despite the improvements made by the parents, but the trial court relied on the substantial improvement made by the parents against the previous condition of the home. The argument that the parents need not completely remedy the circumstances that led to the removal, but that they need only make improvements such that the children could return home was successful in this case.
You can view or download the case here: In re Burnett
Posted on December 15th, 2010 No comments
Well, well, well. It appears I have caused a little bit of a stir among those who regularly practice in the area of child protection law.
On December 18, 2009, the Trial Court terminated mother’s parental rights to her one year old daughter. Her parental rights to five other children were previously terminated in 2004, and her parental rights to a sixth child were terminated in 2006. This most recent termination was her seventh. Mother had made great strides since the most recent termination. I was appointed to represent Mother on appeal.
On December 7, 2010, the Court of Appeals issued an opinion reversing the trial court. The Court wrote:
“Reviewing the evidence as a whole, we harbor serious doubts that the statutory grounds for termination were established by clear and convincing evidence as to (b)(ii), (g), and (j). A trial court may terminate parental rights pursuant to MCL 712A.19b(3)(i) where:
Parental rights to 1 or more siblings of the child have been terminated due to serious and chronic neglect or physical or sexual abuse, and prior attempts to rehabilitate the parents have been unsuccessful.
Assuming, without deciding, that the above statutory basis was clearly and convincingly established, we nevertheless reverse because clear and convincing evidence did not establish that termination was in the child’s best interests.
What has most concerned about this opinion is the Court of Appeal’s application of the clear and convincing evidence standard to the best interest determination. Both MCR 3.977 and MCL 712A.19b(5) are silent as to the burden of proof to be applied at best interests. This case is significant because the Court of Appeals has interpreted the statute and the Court Rule to apply the clear and convincing evidence standard as opposed to preponderance of the evidence. For those you that follow this blog, you know I have commented that there is some ambiguity in the statute and court rule as to the applicable burden of proof (see here).
What I think is the most important thing to take away from this case is that mother had made great strides to correct the conditions that led to the previous termination. The Court noted “[mother] is [not] the same person that she was when her rights were terminated to the other children some years prior, and none of the prosecution’s witnesses testified that respondent’s parental rights should be terminated or that termination would be in the child’s best interests.” Regardless of the burden of proof, Mother was in a position to be given a chance to reunify with her children.
Because I am the attorney on the case, I hesitate to comment too much on the matter until it reaches an ultimate resolution. I promise to post more regarding the burden of proof at best interests in the future.
You can download or view the case here: In re Thomas
Posted on June 24th, 2010 No comments
Wouldn’t you know it? The day after I get around to posting In re Mason, the Court of Appeals issues its first reversal based it: In re Lopez (unpublished). In this case, father appealed Judge Dobrich’s (Cass County) termination of his parental rights to his child, Y, pursuant to MCL 712A.19b(3)(g) and (h).
The child came to the attention of DHS on allegations that mother was allowing her children to miss excessive amounts of school. There were also allegations that when she gave birth to one of the children, she tested positive for marijuana and opiates. Father was incarcerated in Indiana at the time the case was initiated and throughout the proceedings. Father’s earliest release date was April 19, 2011.
On April 6, 2009, mother entered a plea and father did not object to jurisdiction. The foster care worker never had any contact with father “due to him being incarcerated out of state.” There was information that the worker communicated with father via mail.
A supplemental petition was filed on October 29, 2009, alleging father “failed to participate in any way in order to be reunited with” Y.
Father had a history of incarceration. He first went to prison in 2000 and was released on parole on October 5, 2007. At that time, mother gave him custody of Y. This lasted until December 2008, when he returned to prison for violating his parole.
At the hearing, father testified that he had not been provided with any services from DHS and he was on the waiting list for programs in the prison.
The worker testified that upon release father would not be able to immediately provide proper care and custody of the child. Father testified he would be able to do so because he had in the past.
Based on these facts, the trial court found a statutory basis to terminate parental rights under (3)(g) and (3)(h). On appeal, Father challenged the trial court’s decision under (3)(h) only. However, the trial court interpreted his argument on the whole could be read as addressing the “reasonable expectation” component of (3)(g) and found the issue was not abandoned.
MCL 712A.19b(3)(h) states:
The parent is imprisoned for such a period that the child will be deprived of a normal home for a period exceeding 2 years, and the parent has not provided for the child’s proper care and custody, and there is no reasonable expectation that the parent will be able to provide proper care and custody within a reasonable time considering the child’s age.
The Court found the trial court clearly erred in finding a statutory basis based on (3)(h) because father’s earliest release date of April 19, 2011, was only 18 months from October 2009. Thus, the facts did not show that father would be imprisoned for more than 2 years past the date of the petition. The Court acknowledged this was only his earliest release date, but noted that petitioner did not present evidence of the maximum discharge date and failed to meet its burden on that element. The Court noted that under In re Mason incarceration alone was not a basis for termination.
MCL 712A.19b(3)(g) states:
The parent, without regard to intent, fails to provide proper care or custody for the child and there is no reasonable expectation that the parent will be able to provide proper care and custody within a reasonable time considering the child’s age.
The Court found the trial court clearly erred in finding a statutory basis under this ground because DHS did not provide father with any services and services were not readily available to him while incarcerated. The Court noted that father was incarcerated in Indiana, but found that nothing in the Supreme Court’s ruling in In re Mason led it to conclude that out-of-state incarceration limits or modifies the statutory obligation of DHS. Thus, it held that DHS failed to fulfill its statutory obligation to adequately involve or evaluate father, by failing to offer him any services and by failing to include him in any service plan.
Having found DHS did not establish a statutory basis under either (3)(h) or (3)(g), the Court reversed and remanded the case.
This case deals primarily with the reasonable efforts to reunify the family DHS must make with an incarcerated parent. The panel in this case is of the opinion that Mason makes no distinction between a parent incarcerated in-state versus out-of-state. The opinion is correct that Mason does not address the efforts required by DHS to a parent incarcerated out-of-state. But, this is probably because that was not the facts in Mason. DHS policy does not allow workers to cross the state line, so I am not sure DHS can provide any services to a parent incarcerated out-of-state, other than under some interstate compact.
You can view or download the case here: In re Lopez
Posted on December 1st, 2009 No comments
In this case, the CoA found that the trial court clearly erred when it terminated rights under MCL 712A.19b(3)(h) [The parent is imprisoned for such a period that the child will be deprived of a normal home for a period exceeding 2 years, and the parent has not provided for the child's proper care and custody, and there is no reasonable expectation that the parent will be able to provide proper care and custody within a reasonable time considering the child's age.] Respondent’s earliest release date from prison was only two months after the termination hearing. The Court reasoned that there is too much uncertainty in potential release dates for section (3)(h) to be used as a basis to terminate parental rights when a respondent’s earliest release date is close to the time of the termination hearing.
The Court went on to hold that the error was harmless because there were other grounds for termination that respondent did not contest. If your client’s earliest release date is anytime within two years of the termination hearing, you could make this argument. Obviously, the closer to two years from the termination hearing your client’s earliest release date is, the less likely this argument will prevail.
You can view or download the case here: In re Sikorski
Posted on November 27th, 2009 No comments
It is rare that the CoA issues an opinion overturning a case based on a lack of jurisdiction, but last week we got just such a case. The case addresses the proper grounds for jurisdiction under MCL 712A.2 and while the case is unpublished, it does include some arguments that may be applicable in some of your cases.
During the course of an investigation related to allegations that the child had been sexually abused by a family friend, DHS learned that Father had been convicted of 3rd and 4th degree CSC and sentenced to 6 to 15 years in prison in March 2007. The victim was a 14 year old student at the school where Father worked as a janitor and the offenses occurred at the school. DHS considered Father an unfit parent based solely on his CSC offenses.
DHS filed a petition to terminate Father’s parental rights under MCL 712A.19b(3)(g), (h), and (j). The trial court found that “based on the information provided that father will not be around for a significant priod of this child’s life and that satisfies MCL 712.2(b)(1) and (2). The Court went on to find a statutory basis for termination of parental rights under MCL 712A.19b(3)(g), (h), and (j). Later, the trial court found termination was in the child’s best interests.
In its analysis, the Court of appeals addressed whether the trial court properly found jurisdiction. The Court looked at four basis upon which a court may acquire jurisdiction under MCL 712A.2.
1) The first basis for jurisdiction under § 2(b)(1) is that the parent “legally responsible for the care and maintenance of the juvenile, when able to do so, neglects or refuses to provide proper or necessary support, education, medical, surgical, or other care necessary for his or her health or morals.” In this case, the Court found Father was unable to provide for the child due to his incarceration.
2) The second basis for jurisdiction under § 2(b)(1) is that the child “is subject to a substantial risk of harm to his or her mental well-being.” Where the child is the victim of a criminal offense committed by the parent, the court can exercise jurisdiction under the second clause of § 2(b)(1) because “there most certainly will be some negative effect on the child’s mental well-being” and the fact that the parent is incarcerated at the time the petition is filed “does not eliminate the mental and emotional effect on the child of his violent conduct.” In re S R, 229 Mich App 310, 315; 581 NW2d 291 (1998). In this case, since the CSC was committed on an unrelated minor and the child had no knowledge of the crime, there was no risk of harm to the child.
3) The third basis for jurisdiction under § 2(b)(1) is that the child has been abandoned by her parents. To abandon something is “to leave completely and finally; forsake utterly; desert.” Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (1992). In the context of the parent-child relationship, abandonment is most often described as willful or intentional conduct on the part of the parent which manifests a settled purpose to forgo all parental duties and relinquish all parental claims to the child. In re TCB, 166 NC App 482, 485; 602 SE2d 17 (2004). Accord Petition of CEH, 391 A2d 1370, 1373 (DC, 1978); Hinkle v Lindsey, 424 So 2d 983, 985 (Fla App, 1983); In re Adoption of DA, 222 Ill App 3d 73, 78; 583 NE2d 612 (1991); In re Adoption of MLL, 810 NE2d 1088, 1092 (Ind App, 2004); In re Guardianship of DMH, 161 NJ 365, 376-377; 736 A2d 1261 (1999). In this case, father communicated with the child from prison, so this ground was improper.
4) The fourth basis for jurisdiction under § 2(b)(1) is that the child is without proper custody or guardianship. If the child is living with another legally responsible adult who is providing proper care, the child is not without proper custody or guardianship despite the fact that the parent himself is unable to provide proper custody. MCL 712A.2(b)(1)(B); In re Nelson, 190 Mich App 237, 241; 475 NW2d 448 (1991). In this case, the child was living with mother and there was no evidence she was not providing proper care.
5) Jurisdiction may also be acquired under § 2(b)(2). This subsection requires proof that due to some danger posed by a parent, the child’s home or environment is an unfit place for the child to live. However, a parent’s criminal status alone is not sufficient to enable the court to exercise jurisdiction under § 2(b)(2). In the Matter of Curry, 113 Mich App 821, 830; 318 NW2d 567 (1982). It must also be shown that the child’s custodial environment was unfit. Id.
Finding that there was no applicable basis for jurisdiction, the Court reversed the termination. The Court did not address whether any of the statutory bases for termination were proper. I do not believe the case was remanded because the finding was that the Court lacked jurisdiction.
This is a nice post to review whenever you are thinking about challenging jurisdiction because the opinion is comprehensive in its analysis of each of the grounds upon which a court may acquire jurisdiction over a child under MCL 712A.2. The case also provides some nice citations to certain defenses to jurisdiction you may want to use.
You can view or download the opinion here: In re Johnson
Posted on November 25th, 2009 No comments
First, a little procedural history: In an unpublished decision on March 24, 2009, the Court of Appeals affirmed the termination of father’s parental rights in a 2-1 opinion with Judges Jansen and Borrello in the majority and Judge Stephens dissenting. The matter was presented to the Supreme Court on leave to appeal. In an order dated October 23, 2009, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals in lieu of granting leave to appeal.
Here are the facts: The children initially came into care because of Father’s drinking problem, the fact that he allowed a known sex offender to reside in the home with the family, the dirty and unkempt nature of the home and his neglect of the children.
At the time of the termination, Father had remained sober for over a year, the sex offender no longer resided with the family and he had exercised supervised parenting time. Father had moved in with his sister and brother-in-law, who lived more than 30 miles from where he worked. The move was the result of Father’ s financial difficulties and his inability to make the mortgage payments. Father had complied with all of the requirements and services offered, with the exception of having his own home for the children.
Judges Jansen and Borrello ruled that the facts justified a statutory basis for termination under MCL 712A.19b(3)(c)(i), in that Father’s housing continued to be inadequate. They also held that termination was proper under MCL 712.19b(3)(g), in as much as he had failed to provide proper care and custody and he was unlikely to do so within a reasonable time.
In a very well-written dissent, Judge Stephens wrote the following:
. . . the court improperly focused on the fact that respondent failed to meet the mortgage obligations on his former home. That home was originally purchased with the children’s mother, from whom respondent was later estranged. The decision to purchase the home was based upon the belief that both parents would make economic contributions. Therefore, when the couple separated, the home was the subject of an orderly short sale. This is woefully common in Michigan in 2009. By partially basing its decision on this consideration, the court improperly concluded that this unfortunate, though common, occurrence is an indication that an individual is an unfit parent.
Similarly, the court was also critical of respondent’s choice to work at Wal-Mart rather than seek employment as a chemical engineer. While one may speculate as to whether there are employment opportunities for inexperienced chemical engineers, the sole focus of the court should be whether respondent has any legal source of income, whether that income is adequate to care for the children and whether it will likely be used for that purpose. The fact that respondent could have potentially earned a greater income does not automatically indicate that his income was inadequate.
Judge Stephens also addressed the trial court’s criticism of his choice to live with his sister and brother-in-law. Father testified that he relied on his family, church and sobriety groups to maintain his sobriety. Judge Stephens noted the fact that Father’s choice to move in with relatives brought him closer to that support system and there was no evidence that the home was not safe, clean or spacious enough for the children. Father had even crafted a detailed plan for the children at that home. Judge Stephens cites the U.S. Supreme Court case Moore v East Cleveland, 431 US 494, 505; 97 S Ct 1932; 52 L ED 2d 531 (1977):
“Out of choice, necessity, or a sense of family responsibility, it has been common for close relatives to draw together and participate in the duties and the satisfactions of a common home . . . Especially in times of adversity, such as the death of a spouse or economic need, the broader family has tended to come together for mutual sustenance and to maintain or rebuild a secure home life.”
On application for leave to appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the opinion of Judges Jansen and Borrello and adopted the reasons stated in Judge Stephens’ dissenting opinion.
This opinion reflects a sign of the times here in Michigan. With the home foreclosure rate and short sales sky high in Michigan, Father in this case found himself in an all too familiar circumstance. Certainly, we cannot terminate the rights of every parent that loses their home to foreclosure or short sale. As Judge Stephens points out, the proper inquiry is whether the children are properly cared for and whether the home is an adequate environment for the children.
Sometimes it becomes difficult for judges and those of us who find ourselves in occupations that are somewhat insulated from ordinary market forces to fully understand the economic hardships being experienced by many in Michigan. We cannot become insensitive to the cultural or other circumstances that lead people to live situations other than the traditional nuclear family where the household consists of mom, dad, the kids and the family pet. I think the dissent in this case does an excellent job making this point. Frankly, Judge Stephens did a better job than I could have on the issue.
You can download the majority opinion here: In re Mitchell (majority)
You can download the dissent here: In Re Mitchell (dissent)
You can download the Supreme Court’s Order here: In re Mitchell (Supreme Court)
Posted on September 28th, 2009 No comments
In this case, the Court of Appeals affirmed a termination of respondent father’s parental rights on a supplemental petition. He argued that the trial court erred by not holding a separate best interests hearing after finding a statutory basis to terminate his parental rights. The CoA held the argument was without merit because where termination is requested pursuant to a supplemental petition filed after the initial dispositional hearing, the trial court need only conduct a single hearing at which both the statutory ground for termination and the child’s best interests were considered. Defendant was not entitled to a separate best interests hearing. The CoA cites MCR 3.977(G)(1)(b) and (3) in support of its finding, which state:
(G) Termination of Parental Rights; Other. If the parental rights of a respondent over the child were not terminated pursuant to subrule (E) at the initial dispositional hearing or pursuant to subrule (F) at a hearing on a supplemental petition on the basis of different circumstances, and the child is within the jurisdiction of the court, the court must, if the child is in foster care, or may, if the child is not in foster care, following a dispositional review hearing under MCR 3.975, a progress review under MCR 3.974, or a permanency planning hearing under MCR 3.976, take action on a supplemental petition that seeks to terminate the parental rights of a respondent over the child on the basis of one or more grounds listed in MCL 712A.19b(3).
(b) Hearing on Petition. The hearing on a supplemental petition for termination of parental rights under this subrule must be held within 42 days after the filing of the supplemental petition. The court may, for good cause shown, extend the period for an additional 21 days.
(3) Order. The court must order termination of the parental rights of a respondent and must order that additional efforts for reunification of the child with the respondent must not be made, if the court finds
(a) on the basis of clear and convincing evidence admitted pursuant to subrule (G)(2) that one or more facts alleged in the petition:
(i) are true, and
(ii) come within MCL 712A.19b(3).
(b) that termination of parental rights is in the child’s best interests.
I believe the CoA based its opinion on the singular use of the word “hearing” in MCR 3.977(G)(1)(b). However, I don’t read the rule as a basis to deny a separate best interest hearing on a supplemental petition. To the contrary, the fact that the statutory basis findings and the best interest findings are set forth in separate sub-paragraphs indicate that a separate hearing is required.
Also, take a closer look at MCR 3.977 (G)(3)(a) and (b). You will notice that the clear and convincing standard is used for finding a statutory basis for termination in sub-paragraph (a), but there is no standard listed for the best interest findings in sub-paragraph (b). The way this rule is drafted leaves some ambiguity as to the standard of proof necessary to show that it is in the best interests of the child to terminate parental rights.
You can view or download the case here: In re Mason
Posted on September 9th, 2009 No comments
There were 10 termination of parental rights opinions from the Court of Appeals on the E-Journal this morning. All of them affirmed the termination. In In re Cooper, Respondent father argued that the trial court erred in failing to take action to ascertain his status as the child’s father, as a result of which he was deprived of his right to court-appointed counsel. The Court of Appeals found the trial court failed to comply with MCR 3.921(C) (presumably the notice requirements) after finding at the preliminary hearing probable cause to believe that respondent was the child’s putative father. However, they found he was not prejudiced by any error that may have occurred. Respondent was not entitled to counsel until he became a respondent by establishing paternity, and he did not take exception to the trial court’s exercise of jurisdiction over the child before paternity was established. After respondent established paternity, counsel was appointed to assist him, the termination hearing was adjourned to permit respondent to confer with counsel, and respondent was represented by counsel at the hearing. Under the circumstances, the Court held, any error was harmless.
The Court engages in a nice little discussion of when a parent is entitled to counsel:
A respondent in a child protective proceeding has a due process right to counsel. In re EP, 234 Mich App 582, 597-598; 595 NW2d 167 (1999), overruled on other grounds by In re Trejo, 462 Mich 341, 353 n 10; 612 NW2d 407 (2000). That right is also guaranteed by statute and court rule. MCL 712A.17c(5); MCR 3.915(B)(1). In child protective proceedings, a putative father, i.e., the alleged biological father of a child who does not have a legal father, is not a respondent. MCR 3.903(A)(7), (17), and (23); MCR 3.903(C)(10). Therefore, until respondent became a legal father by completing and filing an acknowledgement of parentage, MCR 3.903(A)(7)(e), he was not entitled to the appointment of counsel.
You can view or download the case here: In re Cooper
Posted on August 13th, 2009 No comments
In this unpublished opinion from Ingham County, the supplemental petition alleged CPS received a complaint respondent was selling drugs and had guns in his house. Four days later, the foster care worker referred him for a drug screen, which he failed to complete. DHS attempted to follow up with him without success. The trial court terminated Father’s parental rights pursuant to MCL 712A.19b(3)(g) [The parent, without regard to intent, fails to provide proper care or custody for the child and there is no reasonable expectation that the parent will be able to provide proper care and custody within a reasonable time considering the child's age.]
The CoA reversed, holding that the evidence established there was a cause for concern regarding his ability to provide proper care and custody, but the CPS complaint was not substantiated. The evidence did not clearly and convincingly show respondent was unable to provide proper care and custody or he would not be able to do so within a reasonable time. The evidence at the hearing established the CPS complaint was unfounded and subsequent drug screens indicated respondent was not using drugs. Because there was no reason to believe he abused drugs or kept guns in his home, there was no basis for concluding he was unable to provide proper care and custody or he would not be able to provide proper care and custody within a reasonable time given the child’s age.
This case is significant because it deals with the sufficiency of evidence necessary to substantiate the allegations contained in the petition under the clear and convincing evidence standard. In this case, because Father failed to follow up on drug testing, there was no evidence to support the allegation that he was using or selling drugs. I have often argued that the burden to show a statutory basis to terminate parental rights is on the state – the parent is not required to prove anything. However, it does not always feel that way or (as evidenced in this case) work that way in practice. Often, when allegations are made by DHS the respondent must disprove them at trial in order to prevail. Even in this case, the CoA went out of its way to make clear that “subsequent drug screens indicated that respondent was not using drugs.” Would the Court have ruled the same way had father refused drug testing throughout the adjudicative process? I suspect not. Nevertheless, before the state may sever the Constitutionally protected rights of a parent to his or her child, it must clearly and convincingly make its case and the parent is not required to assist the state in its prosecution.
You can view or download the file here: In re Eastman