August 01, 2016

Maine Supreme Court Allows Lower Court to Dismiss Child Protection Petitions Pending Appeal

Emily Peeler

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 Nicholas S., 2016 WL 3090549 (Maine).

Mother appealed an order finding her three children were in jeopardy while in her care because she failed to protect them from her husband’s physical abuse and failed to provide adequate education. Pending that appeal, the district court dismissed the child protection petition relating to her older son and entered an amended parental rights order. It later did the same for the boy’s younger twin siblings. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court found the district court had authority to dismiss the child protection petitions pending appeal. 

The child welfare agency filed two separate child protection petitions alleging an eight-year-old boy and his younger twin siblings were in jeopardy from their mother’s failure to protect them from abuse by her husband. After finding all three children in jeopardy, the district court dismissed the child protection petition for the eight-year-old and entered an order amending his parents’ existing parental rights and responsibilities to protect him. The amended order awarded the parents shared parental rights and responsibilities, except that primary residence and all educational and medical decision-making authority were awarded to the father. The court also ordered that neither parent could use physical discipline with the child.

The mother appealed the finding of jeopardy for all three children and the order amending her parental rights to the eight-year-old. Pending the mother’s appeal, the district court entered another order amending the twin’s parents’ rights and responsibilities and dismissed their protection petition as well. The mother argued that the child welfare agency did not present sufficient evidence to support the district court’s findings. Jeopardy is defined by Maine statute as “serious abuse or neglect, as evidenced by, serious harm or threat of serious harm.” 

First, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine addressed whether the district court had authority to dismiss the child protection petitions pending the mother’s appeal. It found the district court rightly dismissed the petitions because state rules of appellate procedure specifically allow for child dependency cases to continue review and processing pending appeal. When a lower court determines a parental rights order will protect children from jeopardy, the legislative intent is clear that the lower court must proceed. 

Next the court addressed whether it could reach the merits of the mother’s appeal after the lower court had dismissed the petitions. A jeopardy finding in a court order can raise a substantiation of abuse in administrative proceedings before the child welfare agency, and substantiated determinations can affect a parent’s ability to find employment or care for children other than his or her own biological children. For these reasons, the court applied the collateral consequences exception and addressed the merits of the mother’s appeal.

The court found the district court did not err in finding the children were at risk of serious harm in the mother’s care. The determination was supported by evidence showing the mother’s husband struck the older child with a wooden implement, injuring his genital area and that the child, who was eight years old at the time, feared disciplinary reprisals. The older child’s father described several instances when he was returned to his care with burns, welts, and bruises. Regarding the twins, the court found the evidence of harm to the older sibling established a high likelihood that the twins’ health and welfare was in jeopardy. The court determined the evidence supported a finding of jeopardy for all three children by a preponderance of the evidence, the legally required minimum.