October 01, 2013

Mother's Rights Could Not Be Terminated Due to Poverty

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 C.J.V., 2013 WL 3655806 (Ga. Ct. App.).

Where mother had met many of her permanency goals including obtaining employment despite being in an economically depressed area and had relied on assistance from family to pay her bills, termination was inappropriate. Evidence did not show that mother had failed to avail herself of opportunities to provide a stable home, just that opportunities were lacking.

A mother’s two children were placed in foster care in summer 2011. A case plan was developed with a goal of reunification. The plan required the mother to attend parenting classes, comply with vocational rehabilitation, complete a psychological evaluation and follow its recommendations, maintain an income and stable housing, and regularly visit her children. 

Less than a year later a termination petition was filed. 

At trial, evidence was presented that, though the mother lived in an area of the state that had suffered from the economic downturn, she was able to find employment for several months before the trial. However, she was again unemployed at the time of the hearing. She had been living in an apartment for six months. Though her sister helped her sign the lease and pay the rent initially, the mother began paying after she obtained employment. She had also made two substantial child support payments.

The record showed the mother had completed a parenting class and psychological assessment. It also showed she visited consistently. 

At the close of the trial, the juvenile court found the mother had met some case plan requirements, but found the goal of reunification was still unattainable due to her unemployment and the risk of losing her housing due to lack of income. The court also noted she had failed to follow through with vocational rehabilitation and the recommendations of the psychological evaluation. The juvenile court ultimately ordered the termination, finding the children could not be safety returned and their dependency was likely to continue.

The mother appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals. 

The court of appeals discussed standards for terminations. The court noted that a court must find current unfitness to safely parent, but that past conduct can be considered to determine if dependency is likely to continue. The court further noted the evidence must be clear and convincing. 

The court of appeals found the juvenile court’s claim that “many” of the case plan tasks were not completed by the termination trial was incorrect. While the mother had not complied with the vocational rehabilitation task, she had obtained employment without that assistance. While she had been recently laid off, she had applied for unemployment benefits in the interim. 

Though the juvenile court found she did not follow the recommendations of the psychological evaluation, the evaluation was not in the record to show how any recommendations may affect parenting. Further, there was no evidence presented that she did not know how to care for her children during visits or ever acted inappropriately, or any other mention of a serious mental health issue that affected parenting.

Rather, the court of appeals held the record showed the primary reason for termination was due to poverty, which is not alone a proper basis for termination. It therefore reversed the termination.