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 July 1st, 2010 No comments
After granting leave, ordering briefs and hearing oral argument, the Michigan Supreme Court, in a one paragraph order, vacated the Court of Appeal’s order affirming this case and remanded the case to the trial court for reconsideration of its decision to terminate the respondent’s parental rights in light of In re Mason, 486 Mich ___ (2010) (Docket No. 139795, decided May 26, 2010). Justice Weaver dissented, stating she still believes Mason was wrongly decided and Mason does not apply to the facts in this case.
There is not much explanation here, so I don’t have enough to comment. I expect I will do a long post on incarcerated parent cases after Mason very soon.
For more information on the case, you can read my previous post regarding the published Court of Appeals decision here: In re Hansen.
You can view or download the Supreme Court’s order here: In re Hansen (Supreme Court).
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 July 28th, 2009 1 comment
Last week, the Court of Appeals (CoA) issued a published opinion in a child protection matter. The case is the first to address the best interest scheme after MCL 712A.19b(5) was amended on July 11, 2008.
The facts of the case are pretty simple. Respondent Father was incarcerated at the time the child came into care. At the time the supplemental petition for termination of parental rights was filed, he still had 12 years remaining on his minimum sentence. The trial court terminated parental rights under MCL 712A.19b(3)(c)(i) because the conditions leading to the adjudication continued to exist and there was no reasonable likelihood they would be rectified within a reasonable time and under MCL 712A.19b(3)(h) because the child will be deprived of a normal home with him for a period far exceeding 2 years, where his earliest release date is not until 2021, when she will be at least 13 years old.
The CoA did not find that the trial court erred with respect to the statutory basis. However, the CoA found the trial court erred in not making an affirmative best interest finding. Before MCL 712A.19b(5) was amended, a trial court was not required to make specific findings on the question of best interests under In re Gazella, 264 Mich App 668, 677; 692 NW2d 708 (2005).
With the amendment to MCL 712A.19b(5), it appears Gazella is no longer good law. As amended, termination of parental rights may only occur if the court finds a statutory ground for termination and that the termination of parental rights is in the child’s best interest. If the court so finds, termination is mandatory and not permissive (“the court shall order termination of parental rights and order that additional efforts for reunification of the child with the parent not be made.” MCL 712A.19b(5)). Thus, the trial court must make specific best interests findings following a finding that a statutory basis for termination of parental rights exists. The CoA found that while the trial court erred in appying the wrong best interests tests, the error was harmless because ample evidence existed on the record to support a finding that termination of parental rights was in the best interests of the child.
There is nothing too groundbreaking about this case, but it is the first to interpret the amended MCL 712A.19b(5). It is a fairly straightforward interpretation of the statute. I assume In re Trejo is also no longer good law. Now, if only the appeals courts would give us a definition for best interests. But I dream.
You can view or download the case here: In re Hansen