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Insufficient Evidence For DHHS To Take Jurisdiction Over Child

Posted on Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The trial court properly denied the Department of Health and Human Services’ petition to take jurisdiction over the respondent’s child because the statutory grounds for doing so were not established, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.

In In re Bey/Miller, Minors (Docket No. 355793), the Wayne County Circuit Court held that the  petitioner, Department of Health and Human Services, did not establish grounds for taking jurisdiction over the respondent’s child, DB, under either MCL 712A.2(b)(1) (failure to provide child with necessary care) or MCL 712A.2(b)(2) (failure to provide a fit home environment for the child).

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

“As recognized by the trial court, respondent should have taken immediate action to protect DB from his mother’s drug use,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “However, respondent attempted to help DB’s mother overcome her drug addiction and removed DB from his mother’s home after respondent realized that he could not do so. Thus, respondent actually did act to protect DB. Accordingly, we are not left with a definite and firm conviction that the trial court made a mistake when it found that petitioner failed to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that respondent failed to protect DB such that grounds for jurisdiction existed ….”

Judges Mark J. Cavanagh, Kirsten Frank Kelly and James Robert Redford were on the panel that issued the unpublished opinion.

Background

The petitioner, Department of Health and Human Services, filed a temporary custody petition claiming there were grounds to exercise jurisdiction over DB. The respondent declined to enter a plea of admission and the trial court held an adjudicatory hearing.

At the adjudicatory hearing, the petitioner presented evidence that the respondent had left DB with his mother while she was under the influence of drugs before ultimately removing DB from the mother’s home and taking him to live in Ohio. The petitioner also presented evidence that, on various occasions, the respondent had difficulty managing his anger.

Because the petitioner did not present any direct evidence that the respondent physically abused DB, the trial court denied the temporary custody petition, finding the petitioner failed to establish statutory grounds for jurisdiction under MCL 712A.2(b).

The petitioner appealed. 

Statutory Grounds Not Shown

On appeal, the petitioner argued the trial court erroneously found that the statutory grounds for jurisdiction were not established.

“We disagree,” the Court of Appeals said, noting that in child-protective proceedings, jurisdiction is properly exercised if the trial court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the petitioner established grounds for jurisdiction under MCL 712A.2.

“Under MCL 712A.2(b)(1), a trial court may properly exercise jurisdiction over a child [w]hose 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 wellbeing, who is abandoned by his or her parents, guardian, or other custodian, or who is without proper custody or guardianship,” the Court of Appeals explained. “Under MCL 712A.2(b)(2), a trial court may properly exercise jurisdiction over a child ‘[w]hose 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.’”

Here, the petitioner argued the record supported a finding of jurisdiction under MCL 712A.2(b)(1) because the respondent failed to protect DB. “Specifically, petitioner argues that respondent was aware that DB’s mother used inhalants in DB’s presence but chose to leave DB alone with his mother on multiple occasions when he went to work,” the Court of Appeals observed. “During the adjudicatory hearing, respondent testified that he left DB alone with DB’s mother on multiple occasions despite his belief that DB’s mother used inhalants in DB’s presence. Although respondent did not immediately take action to protect DB from his mother’s drug use, respondent reported the drug use to the police on two occasions, respondent cared for DB while DB’s mother attended in-patient substance abuse treatment, and respondent ultimately removed DB from his mother’s home after in-patient substance abuse treatment proved unsuccessful.”

Accordingly, the trial court “did not clearly err by concluding that petitioner failed to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that respondent failed to protect DB such that grounds for jurisdiction existed under MCL 712A.2(b)(1),” the Court of Appeals held.

Next, the petitioner asserted the record supported a finding of jurisdiction under MCL 712A.2(b)(2) because the respondent’s behavior created an unfit home environment for DB. The petitioner “presented evidence that respondent struggled to manage his anger when interacting with DB’s mother and DB’s maternal grandmother,” the Court of Appeals explained. “Notably, DB’s mother testified that respondent strangled her on one occasion, and DB’s maternal grandmother testified that respondent sent her an email in which he threatened to tell other individuals that DB’s maternal grandmother kidnapped DB. Because the trial court did not address the allegation raised by DB’s mother, it does not appear that the trial court gave significant weight to her testimony. Importantly, the testimony of DB’s mother was uncorroborated, DB’s mother did not report the alleged incident to the police, and respondent denied strangling DB’s mother. Moreover, the trial court considered the testimony of DB’s maternal grandmother and, again, determined that respondent presented a credible explanation for his behavior because DB’s maternal grandmother wrongfully interfered with respondent’s right to spend time with DB. Accordingly, we are not left with a definite and firm conviction that the trial court made a mistake when it declined to find grounds for jurisdiction based upon the testimony of DB’s mother and DB’s maternal grandmother.”

In conclusion, the Court of Appeals said it “acknowledged” the petitioner presented evidence that the respondent struggled to manage his anger when attempting to put DB to bed. “Indeed, respondent’s father testified that he heard respondent yell at DB on multiple occasions when DB would not fall asleep. Although this behavior is certainly concerning, it does not appear that respondent’s behavior rose to the level of neglect, cruelty, drunkenness, criminality, or depravity.

… Moreover, there was no evidence that DB suffered from symptoms of shaken baby syndrome. On this record, the trial court did not clearly err by concluding that petitioner failed to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that respondent’s behavior created an unfit home environment for DB such that grounds for jurisdiction existed under MCL 712A.2(b)(2).”

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