In In re ALNW, Minor, the Court of Appeals reversed an order terminating parental rights to both parents of the minor child. When the child's mother, then 20 years-old, noticed a popping sound in the four month old's chest, she immediately called her doctor seeking advice. Since the child was not experiencing other symptoms, the doctor advised the mother to wait until the child's next check-up to have the child looked at. After x-rays revealed that the child had suffered several broken ribs, DHS became involved.
Although both of the child's parents sought immediate medical attention and seemed genuinely concerned about the child, they were unable to explain how the child's injuries occurred. Given the severity of the child's injuries and lack of a reasonable explanation, DHS filed a petition seeking immediate termination of both parent's rights to the child. They were not offered services simply because they failed to explain how their infant child was injured.
At trial, the child's guardian ad litem opined that the parents, who were young and inexperienced, could be good parents if offered the opportunity to participate in parenting classes. He highlighted the lack of evidence of any neglect, abuse, or even negligent actions on the part of either parent and advocated that termination was not in the child's best interest. Despite the guardian ad litem's recommendation against termination, the trial court found that there was clear and convincing evidence satisfying several statutory grounds for termination and that termination of both parent's rights was in the child's best interest.
The Court of Appeals disagreed, reasoning that the mere fact that the child was injured without explanation, absent any other evidence of abuse or neglect is insufficient to satisfy any of the statutory grounds for termination of parental rights cited by the trial court.
The Court further explained that the trial court had more options than just termination and returning the child to the parent's unsupervised care. The COA opinion was amply supported by The Michigan Supreme Court's recent opinion on the issue in In re Rood where the Court held, "It is only when timely and intensive services are provided to families that agencies and courts can make informed decisions about parents' ability to protect and care for their children." The COA urged that the trial court could have asserted temporary jurisdiction, offering the parents a service plan and opportunity to improve their parenting.
Fortunately, the COA recognized the importance of a parent's fundamental liberty interest in raising children and re-emphasized the role of the probate courts in working to reunify families. Instead of allowing the trial court to apply something similar to the tort doctrine of res ipsa loquitor to a termination of parental rights case, the COA properly directed the trial court to provide the parents with an opportunity to improve their parenting skills. The facts and procedure in this case are indicative of a trend that is all too common--immediate termination simply because DHS does not like the parent's explanation with regard to some basis for jurisdiction. However, the appellate courts are consistently identifying those instances where the trial courts rubber stamp the DHS recommendation on a less than convincing record.
Sadly, by the time these cases reach the appellate courts, many of these families have been separated for a lengthy period of time--something that can never be repaired by an appellate decision. Clearly child welfare law does not mandate that parents must provide explanations in order to earn services. To the contrary, Michigan law favors reunification whenever possible.