July 01, 2014

Dispositional Order Against Unadjudicated Parent Was Unconstitutional

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

In re Sanders, 2014 WL 2462899 (Mich.).

Where child was removed from mother, and petition was dismissed against father, trial court erred in continuing to dispositional hearing. Because parents are presumed fit, prior case law allowing dispositions against nonoffending parents based on adjudication of offending parent violated procedural due process.

Father had two sons. When the child welfare agency became involved with his family, the older son lived with him. The younger son was removed from the mother after testing positive for drugs at birth. Initially, the child was placed with the father. Several weeks later, both children were removed on allegations that the father used cocaine and had allowed contact with the mother, contrary to an order providing only supervised contact. 

The father contested the allegations. Though he admitted he had allowed the mother to stay at his house, he contended she had not seen the children. 

The case proceeded to adjudication where the mother pleaded no contest. The agency dismissed all allegations against the father. Over father’s objection and request for an adjudication hearing, the court moved on to the disposition phase where it continued the children in the state’s custody. He was provided a case plan that called for various services and was limited to supervised visits. 

The father appealed. The Court of Appeals decided against him in an unpublished opinion. The Michigan Supreme Court overturned the trial court, finding the interference with parental rights without an adjudication violated due process.

The Michigan Supreme Court first analyzed the statute and court rules governing adjudications and dispositions. Next the court examined the ‘one-parent doctrine,’ a doctrine established by prior state case law that allowed dispositional orders for both parents when only one was adjudicated for abuse or neglect of a child. 

Next the court analyzed these against parents’ substantive and procedural due process rights. The court noted the right to custody and care of children is one of the most important substantive due process rights but the U.S. Supreme Court recognized this right was not absolute—neglectful parents could be separated from their children.

Regarding procedural due process, the court turned to Matthews v. Eldridge, which stated a three-prong balancing test. Courts must balance the weight of the private interest affected by government action, the risk of erroneous deprivation due to the process used, and the government’s interest, including the fiscal and administrative burdens involved in additional processes. 

Under Matthews’ first prong, a parents’ interest, as a fundamental right to direct the care, custody, and control of their children, is a strong private interest. 

Under the second and third prongs, the parties agreed that the state has an interest in protecting the safety and health of children. Yet the state also has an interest, established in statute, to maintain families whenever possible. When a parent is fit, their interest is aligned with the state’s interest in the child’s safety and well-being. Thus, the state also has an interest in properly determining whether a parent is fit before interfering with their rights to a child. 

While requiring adjudication of both parents may incur some additional cost to the state, the requirement will significantly reduce the risk of erroneous deprivation. 

As to the state’s argument that dispostional hearings adequately protect a nonadjudicated parents’ interests because they may have the child returned to them, the court did not find this persuasive. The purpose of a dispositional hearing and reviews are to answer questions about the progress of tasks or services toward eliminating the reasons for a finding of parental unfitness. 

The court also rejected the state’s claim that the adjudication hearing of one parent gave the other parent an adequate opportunity to be heard. For one, they are not a party and thus cannot contest the allegations. They also can not necessarily rely on the other parent to vigorously defend the petition, as here where the mother pleaded no contest.

Finally, the court addressed the state’s argument that the case was moot since the father was incarcerated. Even if incarcerated, a parent can attempt to direct the care of their children, as here where father requested the child be placed with the grandmother. As long as children are adequately cared for, the state lacks authority to intervene.