A Survey of Cases Addressing Behaviors and Circumstances Deemed Sufficient or Insufficient to Justify the Termination of Parental Rights
This concluding article of a two-part series explores the types of misconduct deemed egregious enough to terminate a mother or father’s parental rights, as well as misbehaviors found insufficient to justify termination of parental rights in specific cases. Typically, conduct imperiling parental rights features physical or emotional abuse, untreated alcohol or drug abuse, lack of financial support, long-term incarceration, or a negative or nonexistent parent-child relationship. Those issues rarely, if ever, occur in isolation, and courts normally base their decisions to terminate parental rights on evidence of multiple factors. Despite a demonstrated history of negative circumstances, evidence of a parent’s concrete steps taken to remedy prior problems or lack of opportunity to correct the historic issues may suffice to avoid a loss of parental rights. Examples of misconduct that resulted in termination of parental rights, as well as situations deemed insufficient to terminate parental rights, are revealed in a survey of representative Georgia appellate decisions which follows.
In Interest of E.M., 347 Ga.App. 351, 819 S.E.2d 505 (2018), the termination of a biological father’s parental rights was supported by evidence of: his incarceration for family violence and history of repeated criminal behavior and incarcerations which had a demonstrably negative effect on the quality of his relationship with his child; his history of illegal drug abuse and unrehabilitated substance abuse issues; his failure to pay court-ordered child support for more than twelve months and to provide any other financial support; his lack of stable housing and income; and the absence of a relationship with his child in more than a year since the child had entered foster care.
In Interest of B.D.O., 343 Ga.App. 587, 807 S.E.2d 507 (2017), a father lost his parental rights due to findings of abandonment, failure to support the child, and failure to provide proper parental care and control. Father a) was homeless and a transient without stable housing or income, b) had a history of drug abuse, c) had failed to complete required substance abuse and parental counseling, d) had failed for more than twelve months to pay child support required by a DFCS case plan, e) had not attempted to legitimate the child, f) had not maintained a relationship with the child, g) had failed to exercise any parental care for or control over the child, and h) had failed to maintain required contact with DFCS.
In Sauls v. Atchison, 326 Ga.App. 301, 756 S.E.2d 577 (2014), the trial court terminated a biological father’s parental rights and granted the grandparents’ petition for adoption, after finding that the father a) had failed for over a year, without justifiable cause, to communicate or attempt to communicate with his child in a meaningful, supportive, or parental manner, and b) significantly failed to financially support the child despite his ability to do so. Specifically, after custody of the child was ceded to his mother and stepfather when the child was two years old, the biological father failed to contact the child at Christmas or on her birthday for several years, saw the child only once during each of her third and fourth years, and declined numerous opportunities offered by the grandparents to visit with the child.
In Interest of M.H.W., 277 Ga.App. 318, 626 S.E.2d 515 (2006), a finding of deprivation underpinning the termination of a mother’s parental rights, on grounds of parental misconduct or inability, was supported by findings that mother: possessed no home for herself or the children; was unemployed; had untreated mental health and drug abuse problems; had dropped out of her two drug treatment programs; had failed to complete parenting classes; had failed to pay child support; and had failed to visit her children on a consistent basis after their temporary placement with the Department of Human Resources. Despite evidence that mother was trying to get control of her drug habit, the trial court’s additional requisite finding – that mother’s lack of parental care or control was likely to continue – found adequate support in mother’s history of neglect, including her relapse into drug abuse, her failure to complete two drug treatment programs, her failure to maintain stable employment, and her failure to obtain her own home (all of which were stated goals of a reunification plan).
In Rokowski v. Gilbert, 275 Ga.App. 305, 620 S.E.2d 509 (2005), a father’s parental rights were terminated in an adoption proceeding on grounds of parental misconduct and inability. Before the child’s birth, father had repeatedly exposed mother’s other children to episodes of domestic violence so severe that two of those children were removed from the home. After mother became pregnant with the child, father sought the unborn child’s demise by urging mother to have an abortion and by repeatedly abusing her while she was pregnant in hopes she would miscarry. Father also neglected the child after she was born, by visiting the premature baby only once while she was in intensive care and never attempting to visit her after her release from the hospital. Added to that abusive conduct and neglect, the court made a further determination of father’s parental unfitness stemming from his refusal to provide financial assistance of any kind for the child despite her substantial medical expenses.
In Davis v. Rathel, 273 Ga.App. 183, 614 S.E.2d 823 (2005), another step-parent adoption case, a father’s parental rights were terminated due to findings that he a) had emotionally abused and neglected the child, by repeatedly beating and threatening to kill the child’s mother in the child’s presence, and b) had repeatedly beaten his former wife, thereby evidencing a likelihood that the abuse which had caused the child’s deprivation was likely to continue. The court also relied on father’s felony conviction and imprisonment for battery, cruelty to children, and aggravated stalking of mother, finding that father’s conviction of a crime of violence toward the child and his lack of contact with the child during five years of incarceration had a demonstrable negative effect on the quality of the parent-child relationship. In contrast to the termination of parental rights affirmed in the above cases, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed a biological father’s loss of parental rights in Interest of M.R.B., 829 S.E.2d 848 (Ga. Ct. App., 2019) (physical precedent only). Reversal occurred because the evidence did not support the trial court’s findings that the child was deprived and that the deprivation was likely to continue. The trial court’s errors included a finding that the father had willfully failed to comply with a child support decree for twelve months or more, when in fact only nine months had elapsed since entry of the child support order. Moreover, the trial court failed to consider whether father’s inability to earn income due to his incarceration (for theft) during the term of the child support order constituted justifiable cause for failing to pay child support. The trial court also erred in relying on father’s criminal history, inasmuch as the evidence did not show an absence of effort by father to communicate with his child during his incarceration and to maintain a supportive parental bond, or a likelihood that father’s prior criminal activity would continue upon his release, or a failure by father to comply with goals set in a reunification plan. To the contrary, evidence showed that father had visited with and attempted to communicate with his child until DFCS suspended visitation and further communications. Evidence also showed that father’s only other felony convictions and lengthy incarcerations had occurred before the child’s birth, and that his other misdemeanor convictions carried probationary sentences that would not prevent him from caring for his child. Lastly, the father’s failure to make progress on his case plan goals – i.e., obtaining stable housing and income, paying child support, submitting to a drug and alcohol assessment, submitting to a psychological evaluation, and maintaining visitation with his child – could not support the termination of his parental rights where he did not have any realistic opportunity to complete those goals while incarcerated.
In Interest of N.T., 334 Ga.App. 732, 780 S.E.2d 416 (2015), the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed a termination of parental rights as premature, despite adequate support for the trial court’s finding of deprivation. The appellate court found no error in the trial court determination that the biological father had caused his seven-year-old child to become deprived through lack of proper parental care and control. Father’s history of incarceration over four years of the child’s life had a demonstrable negative affect on the parent-child relationship, and father’s failure to parent, rear, or support his other children during their minority supported a finding that the lack of proper parental care and control caused the child’s deprivation. The deprivation finding was further supported by evidence that father had failed to establish a parental bond with the child and that father’s relocation to Texas after only a few weeks in close proximity to the child “exemplified an instability that resulted in his inability to parent” the child. Nonetheless, the appellate court found error the trial court’s requisite finding that, at the time of the termination hearing, the causes of deprivation were likely to continue, in light of father’s efforts while he was incarcerated and during eight months following his release. At the time of the termination hearing, father was employed and had temporary housing in New Jersey (where he had temporarily relocated to undergo a medical procedure), and provided the child with de minimis support. Additionally, in the months between his release from incarceration and his temporary move to New Jersey, father a) maintained housing with his brother, b) was employed and provided DFCS with proof of that employment, c) attempted to bond with the child with in-person and phone visits, and d) provided gifts, some food, and clothing to the child.