Commonwealth, Cabinet For Health & Family Services v. T.N.H., Ky S. Ct., Minor's Parental Rights To Child May Be Terminated

Com. v. T.N.H., 2008-SC-00318-DGE

Issue:  Termination of Parental Rights

Published:   Reversing

County: Jefferson

 

Supreme Court granted discretionary review in this case wherein the COA reversed the trial court’s decision to terminate the parental rights of a mother, who was a minor and committed to the Cabinet, because the Cabinet failed to present evidence of the likelihood that the mother would not develop the necessary parenting skills once she turned 18.   

 

FACTS:

When T.N.H. was 14 years old, she gave birth to J.L.H.  Shortly thereafter the Cabinet filed a petition for dependency, abuse, and neglect, claiming T.N.H. was neglecting the child.  Both mother and son were placed in the custody of a maternal aunt.  Two months later they were both voluntarily committed to the Cabinet’s custody and placed in foster care.  J.L.H. remained in the same foster home throughout the litigation.  Due to T.N.H’s disruptive behavior, refusal to participate in the various treatment plans, violation of curfew, and several attempts to run away, the mother spent time in multiple placements.  The social worker testified at the termination hearing that there was no apparent bond between mother and son.  At one time, mother ran away for 107 days and made no contact with the child and did not inquire as to his well-being.  She only returned to seek medical attention after her boyfriend physically abused her.  In contrast, J.L.H. had adjusted well to his foster family, called his foster parents “mom” and “dad,” and the social worker testified that the foster family was willing to adopt the child. 

 

The trial court granted the Cabinet’s petition and terminated the mother’s parental rights.  The court made several findings of fact, including that “T.N.H., for reasons other than poverty alone, had continuously or repeatedly failed to provide or was incapable of providing essential food, clothing, shelter, medical care or education reasonably necessary and available for J.L.H.’s well-being and there was no reasonable expectation of significant improvement in T.N.H’s conduct in the immediately foreseeable future (KRS 625.090(2)(g)). . .” (emphasis added).  The COA reversed the trial court’s decision, opining that when the mother is a minor, the Cabinet should present evidence as to the likelihood that when the teen reaches adulthood the parent cannot effectively parent the child. 

 

ANALYSIS:

SC reversed the COA’s decision and reinstated the trial court’s order terminating the mother’s parental rights.  By requiring the Cabinet to present evidence of the likelihood that the minor will not be able to effectively parent once he/she reaches adulthood, the COA raised the standard for terminating a minor’s parental rights.  SC rejected the more stringent standard.  First, the language of the statute does not reflect an intent by the legislature to raise the standard for a minor parent.  Second, the needs of the child are the same regardless of the age of the parent.  Children of minors should not be forced to stay in foster care longer than children of adult parents.  Attaining adulthood is no guarantee that a parent’s skills will meet the law’s minimum requirements.  Age and immaturity do not excuse a parent from his/her responsibility to meet the basic needs of the child.  Given the mother’s history of inappropriate behavior and failure to meet the child’s basic needs, the evidence was sufficient to show that there was no reasonable expectation of significant improvement in her conduct in the immediately foreseeable future.  It was in the child’s best interests that the mother’s rights be terminated. 

SC refused to hear multiple issues raised by the mother as alternate grounds to support the COA opinion, because the issues were not raised via a cross motion for discretionary review.     

Digested by Sarah Jost Nielsen, Diana L. Skaggs + Associates