What does it take to terminate the parental rights of a parent to a child in Alabama? This issue comes up repeatedly, and there’s no new legal ground covered in today’s case. Because it comes up so often, however, let’s explore it.
The case is S.D.P. v. U.R.S., Case No. 2070977 (Ala. Civ. App. March 13, 2009), and the facts are familiar. The child lives with Mom; Dad is more or less absent and almost never pays support. Mom petitions the court to terminate his parental rights, offering a signed and notarized “consent and relinquishment of parental rights.” There’s no replacement father waiting in the wings ready to take over the duty of parenting the child, and there’s no need to terminate parental rights as part of the process of declaring the child dependent.
Dad didn’t show up for the ensuing hearing in Talladega County Juvenile Court. Mom, the only witness, testified that she and Dad were never married, that they lived together for a while after the child was born, that Dad had abused her physically, that he had told her he had a criminal record, and that she wanted him out of her life. She testified that the father never visited the child, but she offered no testimony on the periods of time involved.
The juvenile court apparently granted her petition and terminated Dad’s parental rights, and it was the guardian ad litem for the child who appealed. Neither Mom nor Dad filed a brief on appeal, only the GAL. The GAL’s brief argued that the juvenile court did not have before it clear and convincing evidence justifying the termination of parental rights.
To terminate parental rights in Alabama, you must satisfy both prongs of a two-pronged test. Ex parte J.E., Case No. 1060874 (Ala. May 9, 2008). The first test is whether grounds for exist for termination pursuant to Ala. Code § 6-18-7. Specifically, the parent must be shown to be “unable or unwilling to discharge [his] responsibilities to and for the child, or that the conduct or condition of [Dad] is such as to render [him] unable to properly care for the child and that such conduct or condition is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.” The statute says that when abandonment continues for four months or more before the filing of the petition, there is a rebuttable presumption the parent is unable or unwilling to act as a parent. Only when this test is satisfied does the court look to the second test, whether all viable alternatives to terminating parental rights have been considered and exhausted.
Deprived of argument from the mother, the appeals court looked to her testimony in juvenile court. It summarized Mom’s testimony and found that it fell short of satisfying the first test. The appeals court said that she testified that Dad had abandoned the child but offered no dates; therefore there was no basis for the juvenile court’s finding that Dad had abandoned the child.
The appeals court stated that the only other grounds for termination Mom mentioned was her desire to have Dad out of the child’s life and Dad’s desire to be relieved of the duty to support the child. Stating that the convenience of the parties may not serve as the sole basis for terminating parental rights, the appeals court reversed the juvenile court.
In his lengthy concurring opinion, Judge Moore argued in favor of bifurcating hearings dealing with terminating parental rights. He advocated having a first stage in which the court limits its inquiry to whether the termination would be in the child’s interests, and a second stage in which the sole question is whether grounds exist for termination. Use of this method, he stated, would have established at the outset that termination of parental rights was not in the child’s best interests and that therefore was no reason even to inquire whether grounds for termination existed.
Judge Bryan dissented, arguing that adequate grounds for termination existed and that the appeals court should have affirmed the judgment of the juvenile court.