In yet another recent case, it appears that the Court of Appeals has gradually shifted the standard of review in favor of the biological parent and the parental rights and preferences.  In the previously blogged and reviewed cases, the competing adoptions with a parental preference and a fit father’s custody filing — were both considered and analyzed – and in each of these recent cases, the Court had sided with the parental preference arguably raising the bar to overcome parental preferences and here to find neglect against a parent.

In IN RE K.M., decided on September 12, 2013, the Court reversed the neglect finding in favor of the mother diagnosed with delusional ideations, the prosecutorial type.

In this case, the mother LM was diagnosed to have suffered from delusional disorder.  Specifically the psychologists described the disorder as irrational and firmly fixed beliefs that LM was being harmed by others or that other people meant to hurt or to persecute her.

The two relevant statutory neglect provisions applicable were:

1)    D.C. Code § 16-2301 (9)(A)(ii) if the child is “without proper parental care or control, subsistence, education as required by law, or other care or control necessary for his or her physical, mental, or emotional health, and the deprivation is not due to the lack of financial means of his or her parent.” No finding of parental fault is required to establish neglect. In re N.P., 882 A.2d 241, 250 (D.C. 2005). The “relevant focus for the court . . . is the [child’s] condition, not the [mother’s] culpability.” In re E.H., 718 A.2d at 169.

2)    A child is neglected within the meaning of D.C. Code § 16-2301 (9)(A)(iii) if the child’s parent is “unable to discharge his or her responsibilities to and for the child because of . . . mental incapacity.” Proof of mental incapacity alone is not sufficient; the government is required to “demonstrate the existence of a nexus between a parent’s [] mental incapacity and an inability to provide proper parental care.” In re N.P., 882 A.2d at 251.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court finding and also the District’s position that L.M.’s delusional disorder rendered L.M. unable to provide proper parental care for and control over K.M.

Essentially the Court reasoned that this case falls under those neglect cases that although the parent might have either a drug issue, or a mental health problem – the issue or problem does not rise to the level of neglect – as the court focused on the condition of the child.  That is, the causal link between the parent’s issues and the child’s condition does not justify a finding of neglect.

Here the Court found that the behavioral issues the child exhibited was after the removal.  Although LM had mental health issues, she provided sufficient care and control over KM in that KM was not a neglected child.  The home was appropriate, child attended school, and the child was not harmed in any tangible concrete way by the mother’s delusional ideations.  There was no expert evaluation of the child to determine whether the mother’s condition had impacted the child in any significant way.

Moreover, the Court appropriately emphasized that there was also no substantial or serious risk of harm to the child thus sustaining a neglect finding based on the evidence and forecast of a serious incurring harm.   Specifically, the Court expounded “[w]e conclude that the expert testimony in this case, which consisted almost entirely of speculation about what ‘could’ happen and general statements of concern about the parenting abilities of persons with delusional disorders, did not suffice to establish the substantial risk of serious injury necessary to support a finding of neglect based solely on a risk of future harm.”

This is a right decision and also at the right time.  In that the Court of Appeals is more rigorously expanding on the parental rights and preferences while curtailing and qualifying finding of neglect or the requisite legal standard used thereof.

Categories: Family Law.