A mother’s parental rights were properly terminated in this stepparent adoption case because the termination was supported by clear and convincing evidence and was in the children’s best interests, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.
The petitioner-father in In re P.M.L., Minor (Docket Nos. 351143 and 351144) sought termination of the respondent-mother’s parental rights to their two children for purposes of a stepparent adoption under the Adoption Code, MCL 710.51(6). After an evidentiary hearing, the Shiawassee County Circuit Court held there was clear and convincing evidence to terminate the respondent’s parental rights and entered an order to this effect.
The respondent appealed, asserting several arguments as to why the evidence did not support the termination of her parental rights.
The Court of Appeals rejected the respondent’s arguments.
The respondent “argues that the trial court clearly erred by finding that clear and convincing evidence supported the termination of her parental rights under MCL 710.51(6), and also clearly erred when it determined that termination of respondent-mother’s parental rights served the children’s best interests,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “We disagree regarding both claims of error.”
Judges Amy Ronayne Krause, Deborah A. Servitto and James Robert Redford were on the appellate panel that issued the unpublished opinion.
The respondent and the petitioner have two children together, PML and SRL, but never married. At first, the parties shared custody of the children and the respondent was designated as the custodial parent. In 2014, the petitioner married the petitioner-stepmother.
In February 2016, the trial court granted the petitioner sole legal and physical custody of the children and ordered the respondent have supervised parenting time. Initially, the respondent’s visits with the children were supervised by her mother. But when a domestic violence altercation occurred between the respondent and her mother, the trial court ordered the petitioner supervise the respondent’s visits.
From October 19, 2016 to December 29, 2016, the respondent missed most of her scheduled visits with the children because she 1) canceled the visit, 2) simply failed to appear at the scheduled visit and 3) was hospitalized for a period of time. The respondent did not visit the children after December 29, 2016.
In March 2017, the trial court modified the parenting-time order to require the respondent’s visits be overseen by an independent supervisor. Although the respondent knew that she could seek financial assistance to cover the cost of an independent supervisor, she did not seek any financial help and never arranged for any visits with the children.
Meanwhile, the trial court had also ordered the respondent to pay child support. The respondent failed to make any regular support payments, resulting in the entry of show-cause orders and her serving time in the county jail. In 2018, while serving jail time, the respondent was found to be in possession of a controlled substance. She was convicted of violating MCL 801.263(2) and sentenced to 30 to 60 months in prison. (Note: the respondent is currently serving this sentence and her earliest release date is January 11, 2021.)
On October 18, 2018, the petitioner and the petitioner-stepmother filed petitions to terminate the respondent’s parental rights for purposes of stepparent adoption. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court held there was clear and convincing evidence to terminate the respondent’s parental rights under MCL 710.51(6). The trial court also found that termination of the respondent’s parental rights was in the children’s best interests. Accordingly, the trial court entered two orders terminating the respondent’s parental rights to the children.
The respondent appealed.
No Regular Or Substantial Contact
On appeal, the respondent claimed the trial court erred by finding that:
The Court of Appeals began its analysis by explaining that petitioners in a stepparent adoption proceeding have the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that termination of the noncustodial parent’s rights is warranted.
Examining the facts in the present case, the Court of Appeals noted the petitioner’s paternity of the children was legally established in 2013. “The relevant two-year period of review in this case spanned from October 18, 2016 through October 18, 2018, the date of the filing of the petitions. The record reflects that the trial court properly considered the appropriate two-year period.”
The Court of Appeals then addressed the respondent’s arguments.
First, the Court of Appeals pointed out that during the requisite two-year review period, the respondent had the ability to support or assist in supporting the children but failed or neglected to do so. “Accordingly, the trial court did not clearly err regarding its findings under MCL 710.51(6)(a).”
Next, the Court of Appeals focused on the respondent’s lack of substantial or regular contact with the children. “The trial court … did not clearly err when it determined that clear and convincing evidence established that respondent-mother had the ability to visit, contact, or communicate with the children, but regularly and substantially failed or neglected to do so during the two years before the filing of the petitions,” the appellate panel said. “Evidence established that when respondent-mother was not incarcerated she had the ability to participate in regular supervised visits with the children. Petitioner-father testified that respondent-mother sporadically attended visits with the children between October 2016 and December 2016. The record reflects that respondent-mother failed to attend numerous visits with the children during that period.”
In addition, the Court of Appeals observed the respondent acknowledged that she had not seen the children since December 29, 2016, despite having the chance to do so. “The record reflects that she could have had supervised visits after that date but failed to take advantage of the opportunities made available to her. Although respondent-mother offered a mixture of excuses for her absence from the children’s lives, the record supports the trial court’s finding that respondent-mother failed to make the children a priority in her life and neglected to visit them.”
The Court of Appeals further noted the respondent did try to contact the children by telephone during her incarcerations. “The children, however, never spoke with respondent-mother on the telephone on a consistent basis. The record does not indicate that respondent-mother sought the assistance of the court to enable contacts or communications with the children. Respondent-mother admitted that she did not attempt to call the children while incarcerated for the entire period from October 2017 through January 2018. Respondent-mother testified that she mailed the children two letters each per month during that period of incarceration.” To this last point, the petitioner-stepmother testified the children received a total of four letters from the respondent from October 2017 through January 2018.
“The record reflects that respondent-mother’s efforts did not amount to regular and substantial contact or communication with the children during the two-year period before the filing of the petitions,” the Court of Appeals wrote. Therefore, the trial court correctly found that clear and convincing evidence established statutory grounds for termination under MCL 710.51(6)(b), the appellate panel said, “because respondent-mother had the ability to visit, contact, or communicate with the children, but regularly and substantially failed or neglected to do so for a period of two years or more before the filing of the petitions.”
Based on the foregoing, the trial court “did not clearly err when it found that petitioners presented clear and convincing evidence to support grounds for termination of respondent-mother’s parental rights under MCL 710.51(6) (a) and (b),” the Court of Appeals held. “Therefore, respondent-mother is not entitled to reversal.”
Further, the Court of Appeals dismissed the respondent’s argument that terminating her parental rights was not in the children’s best interests. She claimed that she never abandoned, abused, neglected or placed the children at risk and the trial court’s best-interest determination was erroneous because the petitioners did not establish the statutory grounds for termination under MCL 710.51(6).
“We disagree,” the Court of Appeals said. The respondent’s conduct demonstrated a lack of concern for the welfare of the children, the record showed the children had a “stable, permanent home environment” with the petitioners and the petitioner-stepmother “expressed her love and affection for the children and desire to adopt them as her own,” the appellate panel noted.
Although the trial court did not make specific factual findings regarding the best-interest factors, the trial court’s opinion and the evidence in the record “established that termination of respondent-mother’s parental rights to the children served their best interests,” the Court of Appeals observed.
In conclusion, the Court of Appeals rejected the respondent’s assertion that under In re Olive/Metts, Minors, 297 Mich App 35 (2012), the trial court had a duty to determine the best interests of each child individually. “In re Olive/Metts … applies to the termination of parental rights under MCL 712A.19b(5), not the termination of parental rights under the Adoption Code. Thus, respondent-mother’s contention lacks merit.”
As a result, the respondent “failed to establish that the trial court committed plain error that affected her substantial rights,” the Court of Appeals held. “Therefore, respondent-mother is not entitled to any relief.”