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Educational Neglect: Trial Court Correctly Assumed Jurisdiction Over Children

Posted on Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Kalamazoo Circuit Court properly assumed jurisdiction over the respondents’ children and placed them in foster care because a preponderance of the evidence demonstrated educational neglect, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.

The two children in In re Smith, Minors (Docket Nos. 351095 and 351178) were frequently absent from school. The children had about a 75 percent attendance rate from November 2017 to January 2018. The issue at the adjudication trial was educational neglect due to the children’s absences from school. During closing arguments at the adjudication trial, the respondent-father opposed the trial court’s assumption of jurisdiction over the children. The trial court ultimately found that educational neglect existed, took jurisdiction over the children and placed them in foster care.

A parent-agency treatment plan (PATP) was provided to the respondents. After about 18 months of not fully engaging with the PATP, the trial court terminated the respondents’ parental rights. At the time of termination, the trial court found the foster home and a potential adoption family provided the children with substantially more permanence and stability than they experienced in the respondents’ care.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling in a 2-1 decision.

“In light of the evidence regarding the children’s chronic absenteeism from school, we conclude that educational neglect was proven by a preponderance of the evidence,” the Court of Appeals majority wrote. “Respondent-father has not demonstrated clear error with regard to the trial court’s assumption of jurisdiction over the children.”

Judges Karen M. Fort Hood and Brock A. Swartzle joined the majority opinion. Judge Michael J. Riordan dissented.

The Court of Appeals decision has since been appealed. The Michigan Supreme Court recently agreed to hear oral arguments in the case.

Jurisdiction Over Children

On appeal, the respondent-father only challenged the trial court’s exercise of jurisdiction over the children. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reviewed the trial court’s decision for clear error.

“The question at adjudication is whether the trial court can exercise jurisdiction over the child (and the respondents-parents) under MCL 712A.2(b) so it can enter dispositional orders, including an order terminating parental rights,” the Court of Appeals wrote, citing In re Ferranti, 504 Mich 1 (2019). “The trial court may exercise jurisdiction after an adjudication trial if the petitioner has demonstrated that one or more of the statutory grounds for jurisdiction were proven by a preponderance of the evidence based on the allegations in the petition.”

The Court of Appeals then noted that, under M Civ JI 97.37, proof by a preponderance of the evidence means “the evidence that a statutory ground alleged in the petition is true outweighs the evidence that the statutory ground is not true.”

The Court of Appeals continued by explaining that MCL 712A.2 governs jurisdiction in child neglect proceedings. The statute provides that the trial court may exercise jurisdiction over a juvenile under 18 years of age whose parent “when able to do so, neglects or refuses to provide proper or necessary support, education … or other care necessary for his or her health or morals.”

Looking at the present case, the Court of Appeals said: “A child’s chronic absence from school is a sufficient basis for the trial court to assume jurisdiction on the ground of educational neglect as contemplated by the statute.”

In light of the evidence regarding the children’s chronic absenteeism from school, the Court of Appeals concluded that educational neglect was proven by a preponderance of the evidence. As a result, the appeals court found that the respondent-father did not show the trial court committed clear error by assuming jurisdiction over the children.

Judge Riordan disagreed with majority’s conclusion. In his dissenting opinion, he said there was insufficient evidence to support the trial court taking jurisdiction over the children.

“Of course, it would be ideal for all children to attend school without appearing disheveled, to always be punctual, and to have their parents take an active interest in homework assignments,” Riordan wrote. “However, I disagree with the trial court that the record here supports a finding ‘well beyond a preponderance of the evidence that the children have not regularly attended school and are often late.’ … Ideally, every child should have perfect school attendance, but I cannot conclude that a 75% average absenteeism rate is a convincing force of there being educational neglect that is on the level of child abuse. … I would reverse the trial court’s order terminating the respondents’ parental rights and remand for further proceedings.”

Appeal Under Consideration

In a September 23, 2020 order, the Michigan Supreme Court directed that oral arguments be scheduled in the case.

The Supreme Court advised the parties as follows: “The respondent-appellant shall file a supplemental brief within 42 days of the date of this order addressing: (1) whether a child’s chronic absence from school is, on its own, a sufficient basis for the trial court to assume jurisdiction on the ground of educational neglect as contemplated by MCL 712A.2(b)(2); (2) whether proving allegations of educational neglect requires demonstrating that the child has suffered harm, see MCL 712A.2(b)(1)(b), and, if so, what constitutes harm for these purposes; and (3) whether the trial court clearly erred when it exercised jurisdiction over the minor children solely on the basis of educational neglect pursuant to MCL 712A.2(b)(1).”

The Supreme Court also invited the Legal Services Association of Michigan and the Michigan State Planning Body for Legal Services to file briefs amicus curiae. “Other persons or groups interested in the determination of the issues presented in this case may move the Court for permission to file briefs amicus curiae.”

Stay with the Speaker Law Blog for updates on the case.

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