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Court Jurisdiction Over Children Warranted, Different Judge Must Hear Case On Remand

Posted on Wednesday, January 8, 2020

In this child protective proceeding, the trial court wrongly held there was insufficient evidence to exercise jurisdiction over the respondent-father’s children, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in In re Altantawi, Minors (Docket No. 345779).

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) sought temporary jurisdiction of the respondent-father’s children after the mother, who was the custodial parent, was found dead. The DHHS asserted various reasons why it was improper to place the children with the respondent, including that he had been ordered not to have unsupervised contact with the children. The Oakland County Circuit Court dismissed the DHHS’s petition to exercise jurisdiction over the children.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded.

“Considering the record in its entirety, the … evidence demonstrated that the statutory grounds for jurisdiction under MCL 712A.2(b) had been established by a preponderance of the evidence,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Respondent’s criminality, including the domestic violence and fraud convictions, established an unfit home environment. Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court clearly erred when it held that the evidence was insufficient to exercise jurisdiction over the children. Moreover, when reviewing the trial court’s opinion, it is apparent that the court ignored salient evidence and made findings of fact that were simply unsupported by the record.”

The Court of Appeals, on remand, also took the step of assigning the case to a different trial judge. “Clearly, the court expressed an unflattering view of both the prosecutor’s office and the DHHS and their motivation for pursuing the temporary wardship. Considering the nature of the accusations leveled against the prosecutor and petitioner, the assigned judge would have substantial difficulty putting out of her mind previously expressed views. For that reason, reassignment to a different trial judge is warranted on remand.”

Court of Appeals Judges Thomas C. Cameron, Jane E. Markey and Stephen L. Borrello were on the panel that issued the opinion.

Statutory Factors Satisfied

On appeal, the DHHS argued the trial court erred by declining to exercise jurisdiction over the children.

“We agree,” the Court of Appeals said, finding that the statutory grounds for jurisdiction over the children under MCL 712A.2(b) had been established by a preponderance of the evidence.

In its analysis, the Court of Appeals explained that MCL 712A.2(b)(1) and (2) allow a trial court to exercise jurisdiction over a minor child when:

  • a parent or other person legally responsible for the care and maintenance of the juvenile, when able to do so, neglects or refuses to provide proper or necessary support, education, medical, surgical, or other care necessary for his or her health or morals, who is subject to a substantial risk of harm to his or her mental well-being, who is abandoned by his or her parents, guardian, or other custodian, or who is without proper custody or guardianship.
  • the home or environment, by reason of neglect, cruelty, drunkenness, criminality, or depravity on the part of a parent, guardian, nonparent adult, or other custodian, is an unfit place for the juvenile to live in.

In support of these two statutory criteria, the DHHS petition asserted that: (1) the children’s mother had died by violent means; (2) there was a history of domestic violence in the home; (3) the respondent was on probation for a domestic violence conviction; (4) pursuant to a custody order, the respondent was allowed only supervised visits with the children; (5) the respondent had not seen his children for more than a year; and (6) one child reported being fearful of the respondent. Regarding domestic violence in the home, the petition specifically alleged that on February 14, 2016, one child witnessed violence that resulted in physical injury to the now-deceased mother.

“After reviewing the entire record, we conclude that the allegations in the petition were established by a preponderance of the evidence and support a statutory basis for jurisdiction under MCL 712A.2(b)(1) and (2),” the Court of Appeals held. “Accordingly, the trial court clearly erred when it declined to exercise jurisdiction over the children.”

In making its ruling, the Court of Appeals emphasized the trial court’s erroneous findings. “The court found that there was no evidence of improper supervision because respondent apparently complied with the financial support order entered in the divorce case. However, this finding ignores the fact that providing proper care and custody encompasses more than mere financial support. MCL 712A.2(b)(1) permits a court to exercise jurisdiction where a child has been subject to a substantial risk of harm to her mental well-being. … [E]xposing the children to domestic violence and failing to exercise parenting time with them for more than a year was harmful to their emotional well-being and constituted neglect. The court also failed to consider the importance of respondent’s conviction for health care fraud. Instead, the trial court concluded that this evidence was irrelevant because, according to the court, the CPS investigator testified that the ‘health care fraud issues were not relevant to the petition and should not be considered.’ This, however, was not an accurate characterization of the witness’s testimony.”

Further, the Court of Appeals said the trial court failed to properly consider the significance of the interim custody order that limited the respondent to supervised visitation, as well as the respondent’s failure to visit his children for more than a year. “Employing no analysis, the [trial] court simply found these factors were ‘insufficient for the court to take jurisdiction.’ The court ignored the emotional damage a child can experience by the absence of a parent from their lives for more than a year.”

According to the Court of Appeals, “clear error” occurs on appeal when the panel is left with a “definite and firm conviction” that a mistake was made. “In this case, the preponderance of the evidence established that respondent’s history of domestic violence, which involved more than one incident in the presence of a minor child, presented a substantial risk of harm to the children’s mental well-being. Moreover, respondent failed to provide support for the children’s emotional well-being, and his criminal conduct created an unfit home environment. These factors were indicative of respondent’s inability to provide proper care and custody to the children and an indication of a future likelihood of harm to the children. The trial court clearly erred when it failed to exercise jurisdiction over the children. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for entry of an order adjudicating the children as temporary court wards and for further proceedings.”

Different Judge

The Court of Appeals also agreed that the case should be assigned to a different judge on remand.

In assessing whether to remand the case to another judge, the Court of Appeals considered the following factors: (1) whether the original judge would reasonably be expected upon remand to have substantial difficulty in putting out of his or her mind previously expressed views or findings determined to be erroneous or based on evidence that must be rejected; (2) whether reassignment is advisable to preserve the appearance of justice; and (3) whether reassignment would entail waste and duplication out of proportion to any gain in preserving the appearance of fairness.

In its appellate brief, the DHHS cited numerous comments made by the trial court in its engagement with the assistant prosecutor in the case. “The court’s comments seemed to indicate that it had predetermined the outcome of this case and that respondent would comply with virtually everything that it ordered if it took jurisdiction over the case.”

Therefore, “we believe that the trial judge will have difficulty putting aside previously expressed views and findings,” the Court of Appeals said. “Moreover, reassignment is necessary to preserve the appearance of justice.”

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