October 01, 2014

Bypassing Reunification Based on Prior Loss of Parental Rights Was Constitutional

Scott Trowbridge

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 R.D.L., 2014 WL 4437630 (Minn.).

In case where mother lost parental rights to four children previously due to substance abuse and domestic violence, presumption allowing state to bypass reunification efforts and proceed to termination was constitutional. Though voluntary versus involuntary terminations were treated differently, provision was narrowly tailored as it could be easily overcome by a parent who could show their circumstances had changed, and was based on compelling government interest of child protection and timely permanency.

Family’s four children entered care in 2011 due to findings that the mother was engaged in prostitution in front of them, was using drugs, and the father had physically abused her in their presence. Eight months later, the agency petitioned to terminate the parents’ rights.

The petition alleged they had not complied with their case plans including failing to complete substance abuse treatment and maintain stable and suitable housing. In addition, the mother had not complied with the order to cease contact with the father and the father was required to complete an anger management program.

A few weeks after the termination petition was filed, the mother gave birth to another child. The agency offered to not use a termination finding against her in regard to that child if she would voluntarily surrender rights to the first four. She rejected the offer.

After a hearing, the trial court terminated the parents’ rights finding reasonable efforts had been made and conditions that led to removal had not been corrected. The mother appealed and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court order.

Meanwhile, the newborn was adjudicated dependent. The parents immediately filed a petition to terminate, contending a reunification plan was not appropriate or required given the involuntary termination of parental rights to the older siblings.

At trial, the father offered limited evidence that conditions had changed. The mother did not offer any evidence, but argued the provision creating a presumption that a parent is unfit when their rights have been previously terminated violates equal protection under state and federal constitutions. She claimed parents who voluntarily versus involuntarily lose their rights are treated differently. 

The trial court did not find the argument persuasive and terminated the parents’ rights. The mother appealed. 

The Court of Appeals affirmed. The mother then appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which found the statute did not violate the state or federal constitutions. 

First, the court found both types of parents were similarly situated. While the requirements for voluntary versus involuntary termination differ, both require a determination that termination is in the child’s best interest (the main consideration under the statute). 

Next, the court examined what level of scrutiny was required. Examining federal case law, the court determined strict scrutiny would be applied because parental rights are a fundamental right. 

While the mother acknowledged on appeal that the state had a compelling interest in safeguarding children, she contended the aim of the statute allowing a county to bypass reunification efforts was to conserve county and judicial resources, not child protection. 

The Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed. The aim of the provision was to speed up cases to help children achieve timely permanency. 

Next the mother argued the statute was not narrowly tailored. She argued the provision was underinclusive since many parents who are clearly unfit could voluntarily terminate their rights yet would not be subject to the presumption of unfitness later. 

 The court disagreed. First, the presumption of unfitness only operates on a new child’s case when a court has previously found clear and convincing evidence that the parent is unfit. 

Further, a parent can rebut the presumption by showing current unfitness. The burden then shifts back to the state. Thus the court concluded the provision was narrowly tailored.