The DC Court of Appeals in: IN RE TA.L.; IN RE A.L.;  – decided on December 8, 2016, opined a significant decision in extending and preserving parental rights in the context of adoptions.

Here the parents were adjudicated as neglectful and the children were subsequently placed in a foster home. Approximately within a year of the placement, and during a permanency hearing, the goal was changed from reunification to adoption.

The goal change from reunification to adoption and the permanency goal change without affording the biological parents a legal procedure and protection was the main subject of the Court’s decision and is a significant departure from the legal procedure in which the neglect trial courts effectuate goal changes.

The trial court had approved the change in permanency goal without a hearing from reunification to adoption, finding that the parents had not:

  1. Complied with the trial court’s order for drug testing or participated in drug treatment;
  2. Regularly attended couples’ counseling;
  3.  Consistently visited the children;
  4. Secured stable housing; and
  5. Been involved with the children’s medical care and educational services.

Although the outcome of the case on appeal was unaltered, the decision sets out new procedural and constitutional safeguards before a permanency goal can be changed.

The biological parents/appellants argued successfully that goal change from reunification to adoption in effect terminates the neglect proceedings and “effectively puts the case on an almost unalterable path to adoption without a full evidentiary hearing or recourse to an appeal.”

Once the goal is changed, the government’s resources and efforts are all redirected from the biological parents and toward the adoptive parents. In another word, goal change is far more significant to parental rights and preservation thereof thus must be afforded an evidentiary hearing consistent with the laws of many other States.

In short, “the trial court’s grant of a permanency goal change from reunification to adoption over the parents’ objection, without an adjudicatory hearing to determine whether the District has fulfilled its duty to expend reasonable efforts to reunify the family, violates a parent’s procedural due process rights and, therefore, is appealable by the parents as a matter of right.

Specifically, at the permanency hearing, the government has the burden of proof and by a preponderance of the evidence that the parents have been provided with a reasonable plan for achieving reunification, reasonable efforts were made toward implement the plan or to ameliorate the conditions that led to the child being petitioned for neglect, and that the parents had failed to availed themselves or to make progress toward the goal of reunification.

The trial court must also issue a factual written findings detailing that:

  1. The District has in fact expended reasonable efforts to reunify the family as it is statutorily obligated to do
  2. The goals set for the parents were appropriate and reasonable; and
  3. Other vehicles for avoiding the pursuit of termination, e.g., kinship placements have been adequately explored.
  4. In conclusion the court held that permanency goal review must be afforded an evidentiary hearing and be conducted in a manner that protects the due process rights of parents.

There must also be a written finding by the trial court and by a preponderance of the evidence that the government has made reasonable efforts toward the permanency goal of reunification and the specific steps taken thereto.

Because change of goal from reunification to adoption has significant and constitutional impact on parental rights and it is thus deemed a final order subject to immediate appeal and review.

A finding of parental unfitness in prerequisite to grant of adoption or termination of parental rights regardless of whether the parents have designated another caretaker as their choice of custodian.

The decision has significant legal and practical implications. As goal changes are now appealable — the biological parents will be able to extended time via appeal to comply with services or the “ameliorate the conditions that gave rise to the neglect petition.” Or to allow family resources to step in the process and file competing adoption or permanency filing.

The decision will in short and long term preserve and extend parents’ constitutional right to raise their children without the State’s intervention — was long overdue in the District — and thus should be applauded.

Contact our Washington DC Family Lawyer/Child Abuse and Neglect to schedule your initial consultation.

Categories: Family Law.