A trial court properly terminated a father’s parental rights to his two older children after the youngest child died because termination was in the older children’s best interests, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled in a split decision.
The respondent-father in In re Glaspie, Minors (Docket No. 354880) claimed that his parental rights to his two surviving children, JG and JG, were improperly terminated by the Jackson County Circuit Court because he “allegedly murdered [his 2-month-old child]” and that charge “has not been proven.”
The Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, affirmed the termination of the respondent’s parental rights.
In the majority opinion, Judge Kathleen Jansen and Judge Michael F. Gadola said it was irrelevant that the respondent’s criminal case had not yet been adjudicated. “Child protection proceedings are civil in nature and … have a lower standard of proof than criminal proceedings.” The majority also said the record supported the trial court’s termination order because the respondent “horrifically abused” his 2-month-old child, TG, resulting in the child’s death several days later.
Judge Amy Ronayne Krause dissented, saying she would vacate the termination order as “premature and insufficiently justified on this record.” Instead, Judge Krause said she would “hold only that on this record and on the trial court’s reasoning, it has not been adequately established that termination was in the best interests of JG and JG. I would remand until the criminal case against respondent is resolved.”
On June 11, 2019, the respondent’s 2-month-old son, TG, died from severe physical injuries he sustained a few days prior, while reportedly in the respondent’s care. Upon learning of the child’s death, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), pursuant to mandatory policy, filed a petition to terminate the respondent’s parental rights to his two older children, JG and JG.
The Jackson County trial court terminated the respondent’s rights to JG and JG, finding there was clear and convincing evidence pursuant to MCL 712A.19b(3)(b)(i) and (ii), (j) and (g).
MCL 712A19b(3) says a court may terminate parental rights to a child if the court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, one or more of the following:
“(b) The child or a sibling of the child has suffered physical injury or physical or sexual abuse under 1 or more of the following circumstances:
(i) The parent’s act caused the physical injury or physical or sexual abuse and the court finds that there is a reasonable likelihood that the child will suffer from injury or abuse in the foreseeable future if placed in the parent’s home.
(ii) The parent who had the opportunity to prevent the physical injury or physical or sexual abuse failed to do so and the court finds that there is a reasonable likelihood that the child will suffer injury or abuse in the foreseeable future if placed in the parent’s home.”
“(g) The parent, although, in the court’s discretion, financially able to do so, fails to provide proper care or custody for the child and there is no reasonable expectation that the parent will be able to provide proper care and custody within a reasonable time considering the child’s age.”
“(j) There is a reasonable likelihood, based on the conduct or capacity of the child’s parent, that the child will be harmed if he or she is returned to the home of the parent.”
The respondent appealed the trial court’s decision.
Majority & Dissent
In its analysis, the Court of Appeals majority emphasized that TG “was immediately unconscious and comatose from the extensive blow to his head, that the cause of death was a traumatic head injury from blunt force trauma, and that the death was a homicide.”
According to the majority, the medical evidence was “clear” that TG’s fatal injuries occurred while he was “solely” in the respondent’s care. “[T]he trial court did not clearly err in concluding that, despite testimony indicating respondent’s appearance of being an ideal father, there was a darker side that flared, seemingly without warning, that resulted in the children’s sibling’s horrific death. The trial court properly concluded that placing the children in his care was too grave a risk to their safety and that this risk outweighed the children’s bond with respondent.”
Judge Krause dissented, saying the termination case should be postponed until the respondent’s criminal charges are adjudicated. In particular, she pointed out the petition to terminate the respondent’s parental rights to the older children was immediately filed by the DHHS pursuant to mandatory policy. DHHS “admitted to having no knowledge of any concrete concerns regarding JG and JG, and provided an evasive non-answer when asked whether that meant the petition was essentially speculative,” she observed. “Respondent had no criminal history or CPS history, and he was polite and cooperative. There were no allegations of any abuse or neglect perpetrated by respondent against JG or JG. Indeed, their mother testified that respondent had been present at their births, had been an amazing father since ‘day one,’ had never displayed any violent or aggressive behaviors, was supportive and caring, and had strong bonds with the children. Respondent’s parents provided similarly glowing descriptions of respondent’s parenting of JG and JG. The lawyer-guardian ad litem (LGAL) argued that the evidence was speculative whether respondent perpetrated the abuse against TG, that at a minimum the termination proceedings should be postponed until the conclusion of his ongoing criminal prosecution, and petitioner appeared to be pursuing termination for the purpose of vengeance and punishment rather than protecting JG and JG.”
In particular, Judge Krause noted the respondent solely argued on appeal that termination of his parental rights was not in the older children’s best interests. Examining this argument, she pointed to prior, non-fatal injuries inflicted on TG, noting there was “no evidence whatsoever” as to who inflicted those previous injuries. “Importantly, the evidence overwhelmingly showed that TG’s non-fatal injuries would not have been outwardly apparent, even to medical experts. The evidence also suggests that respondent and TG’s mother did not share much, if any, simultaneous parenting of TG. Therefore, anyone who had not inflicted those injuries could not be expected to know about them, much less act on them or take steps to prevent further such injuries.”
Judge Krause also pointed to prior cases where the appeals court has upheld the termination of parental rights to both parents despite little evidence of which parent had actually abused the child. “The facts in this matter differ drastically,” she wrote. “Here, the evidence is that if TG’s non-fatal injuries were inflicted by respondent, then TG’s mother would have no reason to know of them; conversely, if they were inflicted by TG’s mother, then respondent would have no reason to know of them. Indeed, if the injuries were inflicted by one of the grandparents or other caretakers, then neither respondent nor TG’s mother would necessarily have had any reason to know of them. In short, the evidence is insufficient to find that respondent was the person who inflicted TG’s non-fatal injuries, and it was clearly erroneous to find, on this record, that respondent did inflict those injuries. … I am unpersuaded that respondent necessarily must have … inflicted TG’s fatal injuries. … [I]t is possible that TG received his fatal injuries shortly before being dropped off with respondent.” Based on the record, “I am … unable to conclude that I am definitely and firmly convinced that the trial court made a mistake in finding that TG received his fatal injuries while in respondent’s care. Because there were no other adults present at that time, there is more than a mere possibility that respondent inflicted the injuries.”
Judge Krause continued by explaining that the purpose of child-protective proceedings is the protection of the child, while criminal cases focus on the guilt or innocence of a defendant. “Thus, the fact that respondent was found to have committed a horrific act of abuse does not, standing alone, establish that he poses a danger to JG or JG. … The trial court’s focus on the horrifying nature of TG’s injuries was not unwarranted, but the trial court’s ruling seems to have missed the essential question of whether, if respondent did indeed inflict TG’s injuries, respondent was in any way dangerous to JG and JG.”
According to Judge Krause, it was “undisputed” that the respondent did not have a criminal record or any prior history of abuse, neglect, aggression, domestic violence, or mental health or substances abuse issues. “Moreover, respondent was an active father and appeared to have a bonded relationship with JG and JG,” she observed. “The trial court was unimpressed, finding that, despite testimony indicating respondent’s appearance of being an ideal father, there was a darker side that flared, seemingly without warning, that resulted in the children’s sibling’s horrific death.”
The trial court’s decision “failed to consider that JG and JG are differently situated from TG,” Judge Krause said. “I am particularly concerned that the trial court also ignored the LGAL’s pleas not to terminate respondent’s parental rights. The trial court appears to have entirely ignored the possibility that respondent simply treated his older children differently; perhaps due to their ages, perhaps due to his relationships with their different mothers, perhaps due to simple favoritism, or perhaps due to any number of other factors. I also note that the petition in this matter was automatically filed pursuant to policy, and petitioner did not offer a helpful response when asked whether it was essentially speculative. JG and JG are no longer infants, and for whatever reason, respondent was apparently involved in their care when they were infants and did not harm them at that time. The trial court also unambiguously disregarded the possibility of psychological harm to JG and JG, nor did it attempt to assess the likelihood that respondent might physically harm them.”
The trial court’s finding that termination was in the older children’s best interests was “insufficiently supported,” Judge Krause concluded. “Although I cannot find clear error in the trial court’s finding that respondent committed the injuries that caused TG’s death, the record does not support a finding of who committed TG’s older injuries. Importantly, the trial court erred by failing to analyze the likelihood that respondent would harm JG and JG, and by failing to balance that likelihood against the likelihood that JG and JG would be harmed by the termination of respondent’s parental rights. I further share the LGAL’s suspicion that the petition in this matter seeks to punish respondent more than to protect JG and JG. The fact that TG’s injuries were horrifying is certainly not irrelevant, nor is it disputed; but standing alone, it is not sufficient.”
Therefore, “I would not hold that termination is necessarily improper, because such a conclusion would be equally premature,” Judge Krause wrote. “Rather, I would hold only that on this record and on the trial court’s reasoning, it has not been adequately established that termination was in the best interests of JG and JG. I would remand until the criminal case against respondent is resolved.