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December 01, 2013

ADA Not a Defense to Termination of Parental Rights

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.

S.G. v. Dep’t of Human Res., 2013 WL 5861500 (Ala. Civ. App.).

In termination proceeding where mother had been repeatedly committed for her own safety due to mental illness, the Americans with Disabilities Act did not apply to case to bar termination or require agency to provide reunification services. Agency had proven aggravated circumstances because termination was not the type of public service contemplated by the Act.

The child welfare agency became involved with mother because, over a seven-year period, she had been committed 10 times due to auditory hallucinations related to a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. The longest period she had gone during that time without a commitment was two years. 

During one commitment she gave birth to a child. Mother remained in a series of hospitals and eventually a group home after the birth. The father was not willing to serve as a placement for his son for financial reasons and no other able or willing relatives were located. 

The child was adjudicated dependent. Immediately thereafter the child welfare agency filed a motion seeking an aggravated circumstances finding based on the involuntary termination of the mother’s rights to two children two years earlier. 

The juvenile court held a hearing on the motion. The mother’s attorney asserted that because the mother had a mental health diagnosis, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applied to the case and the agency was required to provide reunification services. The court asked the mother’s attorney to file a supporting brief. After reviewing the brief, the court issued an order finding the agency was not required to make reasonable efforts to reunify the child. 

The agency filed a petition to terminate parental rights shortly thereafter, a bench trial was held, and the court terminated the mother’s parental rights based on her inability to safely parent due to her prolonged mental illness. The juvenile court further found there were no suitable relatives that would provide an alternative to termination. 

The mother appealed to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals. 

The Court of Civil Appeals first addressed the termination grounds. The court found no error in the juvenile court’s finding that there were grounds due to either the mother’s prolonged mental illness or the prior involuntary terminations. 

Second, the court reviewed the agency’s efforts to seek a less drastic alternative through relative placement. There, the court found the court properly considered a grandmother and sister, but found they were not appropriate as they had declined to serve as a placements due to financial issues. 

Next the court addressed the mother’s argument that the ADA required reasonable efforts even where aggravated circumstances were found. The ADA requires public entities to make reasonable accommodations to allow disabled persons to receive or participate in public services. The court noted this had not been squarely addressed in Alabama and reviewed holdings from other states. 

The court found other states had found the ADA did not apply in termination cases. Some found that termination proceedings are not ‘services’ within the meaning of the Act. Others found the termination proceedings, if a service at all, were for the benefit of the child not the parent. In other state cases addressing the issue, reunification efforts had been provided, and the courts found that those services showed compliance even if the Act applied. A few cases have held the Act applied, but the termination appeals were unsuccessful on other grounds.

The Alabama appellate court agreed with the majority of courts that found termination of parental rights proceedings were not services for parents, within the meaning of the ADA. It therefore affirmed the judgment of the juvenile court terminating mother’s parental rights.