September 01, 2016

Alabama Appeals Court Affirms Decision Not to Terminate Parental Rights in Case of Medically Fragile Child

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.

Dallas County Dep’t of Human Res. v. A.S., 2016 WL 3364667 (Ala. Civ. App.). 

The child welfare agency appealed a judgment declining to terminate parental rights in a case involving a medically fragile child. The juvenile court found the agency met the statutory grounds for termination but exercised its judicial discretion in declining to terminate. The appellate court found judicial discretion allowed the juvenile court to deny termination when a less drastic alternative that better served the interests of the child could safeguard the child from harm.

The child welfare agency filed a petition to terminate parental rights for a medically fragile child who had been removed because the parents could not care for the child. They were not able to administer medicine, maintain medical information, follow doctor’s orders, or meet the high level of care the child needed. The court acknowledged the parents’ efforts to maintain contact with the child and determined it would be “very traumatic and harmful” to the child if the parents’ rights were terminated because the child had a strong bond with both her parents and foster parents, although she would not survive in her parent’s care. 

On appeal, the agency needed to show the law required termination of parental rights. The appeals court determined the statute says a court “may” terminate parental rights, but does not require termination even if statutory grounds are met. Additionally, the court stated that in many cases when a court finds birth parents cannot safely or responsibly parent a child, it is usually in the best interest of the child to terminate parental rights. In some cases, however, even when the parents are unfit, the child would not benefit from terminating the parents’ rights. 

The agency argued that because the foster parents agreed to continue the relationship with the birth parents, termination of parental rights would allow the child permanency without depriving her of that relationship. Despite the foster parent agreement, the juvenile court felt terminating the parents’ rights and eliminating the enforceable right of visitation would actually harm the child.