Michigan Supreme Court: Incarceration Is Not a Sufficient Reason to Terminate Parental Rights
“Incarceration alone is not a sufficient reason for termination of parental rights,” the Michigan Supreme Court has held (PDF link), in overturning a lower court ruling that stripped a 29-year-old father’s parental rights while he was in prison. Free Press columnist Jeff Gerritt praises the decision:
The ruling by two liberal justices (Marilyn Kelly and Michael Cavanagh) and two conservative justices (Robert Young Jr. and Maura Corrigan) does more than uphold the rights of the incarcerated. It’s good news for anyone espousing so-called family values — or, for that matter, anyone who believes the courts and state bureaucracy should consider real-world problems when interpreting the law.
Like many family law cases, this one implicates a mixture of messy facts and strong moral judgments on all sides, so I am hesitant to repeat the facts posited by either the majority or dissenting opinion as gospel; you can click on the link above to read for yourself. For legal purposes, the key holding seems to be that lower courts can’t apply a presumption of parental unfitness based on a parent’s present incarceration; they must at least consider whether the parent might be fit to care for the children after his/her release.
Specifically, the court’s findings of legal error in the proceedings below centered around the failure of the DHS (Department of Human Services, Michigan’s child protection agency) to facilitate the father’s participation in the termination proceedings by telephone, since he couldn’t attend in person (PDF p. 4). The court also criticized the DHS for faulting the father for failing to comply with its service plan, since some aspects of the plan (drug treatment, a psychological evaluation) would have been impossible to complete while in prison (PDF p. 8). In dissent, Justice Stephen Markman disputed whether the father had actually demonstrated any ability or interest in caring for the children and criticized the majority opinion for prolonging the children’s uncertain situation: “It is potentially catastrophic for these children that their interest in a safe, secure, and stable home must again be placed in abeyance while respondent is afforded yet another opportunity to become a minimally acceptable parent” (PDF p. 29). Note that the children’s mother also lost her parental rights (and has not challenged that decision) so it seems they are currently living with a paternal aunt and uncle.
According to the Sentencing Project (PDF link), one in 43 American children has a parent in prison. Although women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population, the overwhelming majority — 92% — of incarcerated parents are fathers. In part because prisons are located in out-of-the-way areas, more than half of incarcerated parents have never had a visit from their children. This month, for Father’s Day, the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation will hold its annual “Get on the Bus” event bringing 700 children to visit their fathers in prison. The event is co-sponsored by the Center for Restorative Justice Works.