Termination of Parental Rights – Two Pronged Test

The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals has affirmed the application of a two-pronged test to use in deciding whether to terminate the parental rights of a mother and two fathers. First, the court must find that valid grounds exist to terminate parental rights. Then it must identify and consider any viable alternatives to termination.

In A.A. v. Cleburne County DHR, Case Nos. 2030642, 2030643, 2030644 (Ala. Civ. App. May 6, 2005), the trial court had applied the two-pronged test in its decision to terminate the parental rights of all three biological parents.

In this case, the mother’s primary argument was not whether grounds for termination existed (she was a convicted felon who regularly used drugs and conducted sexually acts in the presence of her children) but whether the trial court had considered viable alternatives to termination, most notably placement with her parents. The Appeals Court affirmed the trial court’s finding that the mother’s parents were not suitable because of continuing drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence in their home.

The mother had also suggested her brother and his wife as alternative custodians, but the trial court had found they were unsuitable after hearing evidence of ongoing marital problems related to the brother’s infidelity and that they would be inclined to allow the mother unrestricted access to the children.

As for Father #1, the Appeals Court affirmed the trial court’s finding that his parental rights too should be terminated. The trial court heard testimony that DHR had attempted on numerous occasions to reunite Father #1 with the children but that he was uncooperative and constantly reinvolved the mother in the children’s lives, despite being warned by DHR that this would endanger his parental rights.

Unlike the mother and Father #1, Father #2 argued that the trial court lacked grounds for determining that he was “unable or unwilling to discharge his responsibilities to and for [his child] . . . [and that his] conduct is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.” Ala. Code § 26-18-7(a). The Appeals Court cited ample evidence on which the trial court could have reached this decision, including evidence that Father #2 had made and missed numerous visitation appointments specifically set up to match his work schedule, that he had abused marijuana regularly, that he had lived in his car for several months, and that he seemed to have little or no bond with or affection for the child.