January 01, 2013

Termination of Parental Rights Improper Where Mother Could Safely Parent

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 P.J., 2012 WL 5941508 (Mo. Ct. App.).

Where mother had resolved the reasons that led to the child’s removal by completing her incarceration term and ceasing drug use and production, termination was inappropriate. Mother could parent safely in the near future with the assistance of a family member. Statute did not require a parent to assume all responsibilities of parenting alone.

A mother’s son was removed when she was found to be making methamphetamine in her apartment. She was later convicted and served less than a year in prison. There had not been evidence that the child was harmed by her methamphetamine production. After a year the agency filed to terminate the mother’s parental rights. 

At trial on the termination, evidence was presented showing the mother had completed some portions of her case plan. The mother’s therapist testified that she had done well in drug treatment, including an intensive treatment program, although she stated the mother likely needed more time to be fully independent. The mother had been drug free for an extended period. Others testified that the mother had consistently participated in individual and family therapy. She had consistently avoided abusive and substance abusing men since the case began. 

However, the agency also presented concerns that the mother had not established her own residence as they had encouraged her to do and had been unemployed for most of the time she had been out of prison. The mother still lived with the grandmother at the time of trial.

Based on the above, the circuit court terminated mother’s parental rights. Mother appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals. 

On appeal the appellate court noted that most of the evidence the court cited to support terminating parental rights were the facts surrounding the mother’s situation when the child entered care. However, the record did not contain an explanation of how these past circumstances established a likelihood of continued risk of harm into the future. 

Second, the appellate court noted the circuit court terminated the mother’s rights because she had failed to remedy the conditions that led to removal. This was in error because the reason the child had been removed, the production of methamphetamine and incarceration, had been resolved. The caseworkers had testified that the mother and grandmother lived in a safe and drug-free home. 

The appellate court stated the ground did not permit termination simply because a parent was dependent on others to parent. It noted that parenting is often a family effort. Regarding whether the grandmother posed a risk to the child because she had failed to prevent the child from visiting the mother when there was drug production going on in her apartment, there was no information showing a likelihood of this behavior continuing.

Based on the above the termination order was reversed.