The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled that the Kalamazoo County Circuit Court improperly took jurisdiction over a father’s children and placed them in foster care because there was insufficient evidence of “educational neglect.”
The children in In re Smith, Minors (Docket No. 161525) had about a 75 percent attendance rate at school from November 2017 to January 2018. The Kalamazoo trial court found that educational neglect existed, took jurisdiction over the children and placed them in foster care. A parent-agency treatment plan (PATP) was put in place. Because the respondent-father and the children’s mother did not fully engage with the PATP, the trial court terminated their parental rights, finding that a foster home and a potential adoptive family offered the children more permanence and stability.
The respondent-father appealed the trial court’s ruling. In a 2-1 decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals held there was sufficient evidence of educational neglect and that the Kalamazoo trial court correctly took jurisdiction over the children.
The respondent-father again appealed, this time to the Michigan Supreme Court.
On April 2, 2021, the high court overturned the decisions of both the Kalamazoo trial court and the Court of Appeals. According to the justices, there was no evidence of resulting harm or neglect in the case – a threshold finding when a court is determining whether to take jurisdiction over minor children.
Court Of Appeals Ruling
Last year, a Court of Appeals majority (Judges Karen M. Fort Hood and Brock A. Swartzle) held the Kalamazoo trial court properly assumed jurisdiction over the respondent-father’s children because the evidence established educational neglect (Docket Nos. 351095 and 351178).
“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.”
Court of Appeals Judge Michael J. Riordan dissented from the majority opinion. “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,” he wrote. “I would reverse the trial court’s order terminating the respondents’ parental rights and remand for further proceedings.”
Learn more about the Court of Appeals decision in the case on the Speaker Law Blog.
MSC Reversal: No Showing Of Harm
The respondent-father appealed the Court of Appeals decision and, in September 2020, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed to consider the application for leave to appeal. The justices heard oral arguments in the case on March 4, 2021.
In lieu of granting leave to appeal, the high court issued its final decision through an April 2, 2021 order directing that the case be remanded to the Kalamazoo trial court for further proceedings.
The Michigan Supreme Court, in its two-page order, said MCL 712A.2(b)(1) “provides that a court may assume jurisdiction over a juvenile if his or her parent ‘when able to do so, neglects or refuses to provide proper or necessary … education ….” According to the justices, subsection (B) of this statute specifies that “neglect” is defined the same as in MCL 722.602. “That provision defines ‘neglect’ as ‘harm to a child’s health or welfare by a person responsible for the child’s health or welfare that occurs through negligent treatment ….’ MCL 722.602(1)(d). Therefore, there must be a showing of harm in order for a court to assume jurisdiction over a juvenile under the ‘neglects’ clause of MCL 712A.2(b)(1).”
In the present case, the children attended school 75 percent of the time and were tardy several other times, the high court pointed out. “While that is a greater number of absences than the 85% average attendance rate of their school, the only testimony presented regarding the children’s academic performance was from BS, Jr.’s teacher. She testified that he was performing at grade level. Though she also said that she struggled to get a complete picture of his progress and that she feared he would not be able to maintain his academic level in the future, such testimony is speculative and does not show by a preponderance of the evidence that BS, Jr., was actually harmed so as to have been neglected under the statutory definition. See In re Ferranti, Minor, 504 Mich 1, 15 (2019).”
Therefore, “[b]ecause there was no showing of harm caused by the children’s absences, we agree with [Court of Appeals] Judge Riordan’s dissent that the circuit court erred by assuming jurisdiction on that ground alone,” the Michigan Supreme Court held.
In a footnote to its order, the high court explained the Court of Appeals, in reaching its errant conclusion, relied on In re Nash, 165 Mich App 450 (1987), for the proposition that 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.” However, Nash “did not involve chronic absences without a showing of harm,” the justices said. “There, in addition to the children’s absences from school, the respondent had no stable residence and one of the children was born with symptoms of a drug overdose.”