Parental Rights • Termination • Burden of Proof

In re Adoption of M.A.B., PICS Case No. 17-1128 (Pa. Super. June 29, 2017) Dubow, J. (31 pages).

The trial court erred in denying a petition to terminate mother and father’s parental rights to two special needs children based on a “reasonable probability” that the causes and conditions which led to placement could be remedied. The court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Mother and father are the natural parents of two special needs children. Both parents struggled with substance abuse, causing family services to become involved. The Erie County Office of Children and Youth (Erie OCY) petitioned to terminate parental rights on Aug 26, 2015. The trial court denied the petitions, concluding that Erie OCY had not met its burden under any subsection of 23 Pa.C.S. §25 (a), which delineates the grounds for involuntary termination of parental rights, with respect to either mother or father. Since the children were adjudicated dependent, the parents had remained crime-free and cooperative with service providers, the court observed. Erie OCY and the two minor children appealed from the order denying the petition to terminate parental rights. They argued that the trial court committed an abuse of discretion and/or error of law by concluding that Erie OCY had not established by clear and convincing evidence grounds for termination. The appellate court noted that the grounds for termination of parental rights under Section 2511(a)(2), due to parental incapacity that cannot be remedied, are not limited to affirmative misconduct. Rather, the grounds may include acts of refusal as well as incapacity to perform parental duties. The trial court stated that mother had demonstrated progress in every area that was assessed, including readiness for reunification. While mother struggled with certain issues and was not yet ready to be a sole caregiver, “the record establishes there was a reasonable probability the causes and conditions which led to placement could be remedied,” the trial court stated. This statement was not supported by the record and ignored the Adoption Act’s clear delineation of what must be shown at a termination proceeding, the appellate court concluded. “The issue is not whether evidence proved that sometime in the future mother will be able to resolve her issues,” the court stated.” The cause of the children’s placement was mother’s mental health and substance abuse. While mother minimally complied with goals set for her at first, her compliance dropped off over time. By the time Erie OCY filed the termination petition, mother had gone off her medications without supervision, failed to show up for court-ordered urinalyses and obtained a prescription for Suboxone, the very opioid that led to her children’s placement. Due to the children’s special needs and mother’s refusal to address her significant mental health and substance abuse issues with consistency, mother would be unable to meet the children’s needs in a safe, healthy manner. Moreover, while father was no longer incarcerated and worked two jobs, he had not attended therapy consistently, missed urinalysis, tested positive for marijuana and continued to live with mother, who failed to address her mental health and substance abuse issues. Father refused to put his children’s needs ahead of mother’s and his own needs by obtaining housing without mother. However, the court also considered Section 2511(b), which requires consideration of intangibles such as love, comfort, security and stability. Since the trial court failed to adequately address these issue, the court remanded for further proceedings.