Trial Judge’s Refusal to Terminate Parental Rights on Best Interests Overturned By Court of Appeals
In Re Ella H., No. M2020-00639-COA-PT
On January 13, 2021, my clients received a moral and legal victory. When I originally took their case in July 2018, the mother and stepfather of a then three year old girl seemed to have an ironclad case to terminate the biological father’s parental rights. The biological father knew exactly where my clients lived and how to contact them. The biological father had never established his paternity and never paid more than token support for the child. He had not initiated contact with the child since she was seventeen months old.
The facts which supported a finding of abandonment were undisputed. The clients thought that the biological father would agree to terminate since he had long given up on any involvement in the child’s life. The Stepfather called the biological father to ask if he would sign the petition and explained that termination would end his obligation to support the child. After taking a few days to think about it, he said he would not agree. At this point, the child did not know biological father and believed her stepfather to be her father. The clients also had a little boy, and the four of them were a family unit. I advised them to file for an involuntary termination of biological father’s parental rights. It seemed to be exactly the type of case which would be expected to result in termination.
The trial in December 2019 went very well. There was no dispute as to facts which would constitute abandonment by clear and convincing evidence. Biological Father also did not dispute that the child would not know him if she saw him and that she would certainly not know him as her father. He also admitted that he was not visiting or paying support for his other daughter who is practically the same age as this child. The trial court took the matter under advisement and issued its own written final order eight days later. To my absolute shock, the court refused to terminate the biological father’s parental rights. He found the grounds of abandonment to be proven by clear and convincing evidence; however, he found that it was not in the child’s best interests to terminate Father’s rights, and ordered that the paternal aunt be allowed back in the child’s life stating, “The Court concludes by reminding all parties that the more people in a child’s life that loves them, the better off they will be.” The Court failed to find facts which clearly preponderated in favor of termination and instead focused on blaming the mother and stepfather for not encouraging the father to take a more active role.
The biological father had had a DNA test performed while the termination was pending and thereafter filed to establish paternity and set visitation. As part of the court’s Final Order, the judge ordered the parties to mediation within ninety days to set a visitation schedule and child support. I filed a motion to stay the requirement of mediation because my clients had decided to appeal. The trial court denied the stay and imposed a visitation schedule. As a result, the child had to begin visiting with the biological father who was a stranger to her. The Court ordered six four hour visits every other Saturday and thereafter, every other weekend. To the biological father’s credit, he did not reveal to the child that he was her biological father. The child was now five years of age, and the court had made no provision for how this shocking news would be broken to the child. The child basically thought that she was going to a babysitter’s house.
Finally on January 13, 2021, to our great relief, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s findings that it was not in the child’s best interests to termination the biological father’s parental rights and ordered that the biological father’s rights be terminated.
The Court of Appeals stated the following:
From our review of the entire record, it is clear that the trial court erred in finding that terminating Father’s parental rights was not in the child’s best interest. As discussed in detail above, Father has never parented this child. He is ostensibly a stranger to her. Father’s indifference to his obligation as a parent is further evidenced by his testimony concerning his relationship with his other child, who is this child’s age. At trial, Father admitted that he does not support this child either. . . . It is clear to this court that Father has no authentic desire to parent any child. Conversely, the child is well-settled in Mother and Stepfather’s home. By all accounts, Stepfather has assumed the role of father. He has provided for the child’s emotional and material needs. Mother testified that she will consent to Stepfather adopting the child, and stepfather testified that it is his intention to adopt her. To delay termination of Father’s parental rights would further deprive the child of the permanency and stability she deserves. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s finding that termination of Father’s parental rights is not in the child’s best interest, and we remand the case to the trial court with instruction to enter an order terminating Father’s parental rights so that the adoption may proceed at the earliest date.
The Court issued this opinion as a Memorandum Opinion, and it cannot be cited as precedent. When I researched case law on overturning best interests when the trial court did not terminate, I could find nothing that was on point although several opinions emphasized that the lack of a meaningful relationship between the child and biological parent is often the most important factor in finding termination to be in the best interests of the child.
I knew in my heart that the trial court got this one wrong, and I was glad to have the opportunity to fight for my clients in this regard. Even though this decision cannot be cited as precedent, I invite you to read it if you have a similar situation, and file that appeal knowing that the Court of Appeals has demonstrated that it is willing to right the wrong committed by the trial court.