In Michigan, it is well-known that termination of parental rights cases are very rarely reversed on appeal. Yet, in an unpublished opinion, DHS v Engle, released August 9, 2007, the Court of Appeals did just that.
The respondent had her parental rights to 6 minor children terminated because she failed to protect the children from long-term sexual abuse at the hands of her husband and failed to properly provide for their medical needs and education. The issue before the Court was whether the mother could properly parent the children within a reasonable time given that her husband was now incarcerated, she had divorced him, and she had completed parenting classes and is now receiving counseling.
Although the Court of Appeals agreed that she had failed to protect the children in the past, it was persuaded that the change in circumstances via the removal of her abusive husband from the situation rendered termination inappropriate. The Court was convinced that a mistake had been made where the trial court neglected testimony by professionals who illustrated that the mother was open and willing to receive treatment and that her passive-dependant disorder was caused by an abusive relationship spanning 27-years. The Court reasoned that because the home environment had changed due to the abusive husband’s long-term incarceration, the mother would now be able to properly parent the children.
Finally, the Court of Appeals decided that termination of the mother’s parental rights was contrary to the children’s best interested, stating that, “Emotional harm [suffered by children due to termination] outweighed the speculative harm or neglect that respondent’s passive nature would cause the children in the future.”
It is unclear whether this unpublished case is any indication that the Court of Appeals will be more apt to look for change in circumstances as a persuasive reason to reverse termination cases. It is clear, however, that the appellate courts in Michigan face an extremely delicate statutory balance between acting in the child’s best interest and giving a parent a second chance.