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A Better Partnership
June 04, 2014

MSC abolishes the “one-parent doctrine,” protecting incarcerated father's right to direct child placement after mother found unfit

Until now, adjudicating the unfitness of one parent gave the family court power to take a child from the other parent if it determined that was in the child’s best interests.  In In Re Sanders, the Michigan Supreme Court held this “one-parent doctrine” unconstitutional.  Emphasizing a parent’s fundamental right to control the care, custody and control of his or her children, the court reasoned that due process requires a specific adjudication on a parent’s unfitness before the State can infringe that right.  Because the one-parent doctrine allowed the court to deprive one parent of this fundamental right without any finding that the parent was unfit, it violated due process. The court vacated the trial court’s order denying the father’s motion for placement with him, and explained that the father’s subsequent incarceration did not render the case moot because the father retained the right to direct placement of the child with the grandmother.  In a lengthy dissent, Justice Markman, joined by Justice Viviano, argued that (1) the one-parent doctrine was required by statute; (2) the statute actually could be interpreted as requiring a determination of unfitness to direct placement away from that parent; and (3) due process did not require a trial to adjudicate that unfitness.  Consequently, in the dissent’s view, the majority has just improperl stricken the legislature’s chosen adjudicative process without affording it appropriate constitutional deference.

The one-parent doctrine arose from the Court of Appeals’ interpretation of MCR 3.973 in In re CR, 250 Mich App 185 (2002).  However, the source of the procedure in child protective proceedings is MCL 712A.2(b)(1).  The statute bifurcates the proceeding into two phases:  the adjudicative phase and the dispositional phase.  In the adjudicative phase, a family court determines whether it has jurisdiction over the children on the basis of adjudication of the unfitness of either parent.  This requires a trial under the usual rules of evidence with the burden of proof on the Department of Human Services—unless the parent admits the allegations or pleads no contest.  In the dispositional phase, a family court chooses a course of action to ensure the child’s safety and well-being, and ultimately holds a permanency planning hearing that either results in reunifying the family or a court order to DHS to petition for termination of parental rights.  The one-parent doctrine permits the court to obtain jurisdiction over a neglected or abused child in the adjudicative phase on the basis of a determination that either parent is unfit, and then proceed with the dispositional phase as to both parents. 
 
In In re Sanders, DHS petitioned the trial court to assume jurisdiction over the minor children on the basis of mother being unfit after the youngest child was born with drugs in his system.  Following a permanency review hearing, the trial court established a case service plan for father, which placed the children in the custody of an aunt, and restricted his contact with the children to supervised parenting time.  Father argued for immediate placement of the children with him as the court had no authority to condition the placement of the children on his compliance with a case service plan as he had not been adjudicated to be an unfit parent.  The trial court denied father’s motion, relying on the one-parent doctrine established in In re CR, which allows a court to enter dispositional orders affecting the parental rights of both parents, if jurisdiction has been established through the adjudicative phase relative to only one parent.   Father filed an appeal, arguing that the one-parent doctrine violates his fundamental right to direct the care, custody and control of his children because it allows the trial court to enter dispositional orders affecting his rights without first determining his fitness as a parent.  The Court of Appeals denied father’s application for interlocutory leave to appeal, and the Supreme Court granted leave to address “whether the application of the one-parent doctrine violates the due process or equal protection rights of unadjudicated parents.” 
 
The Supreme Court, in holding the one-parent doctrine unconstitutional, found that the doctrine “essentially imposes joint and several liability on both parents” on the basis of the unfitness of one.  In rejecting DHS’s arguments, the Supreme Court noted that a parent’s fitness must be adjudicated before interfering with his or her parental rights.  The Fourteenth Amendment provides heightened protection against governmental interference with the fundamental rights and liberty interests, including the deeply-rooted right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.  While this right is balanced with the State’s legitimate interest in protecting the children’s physical, emotional and mental welfare, there is a presumption that fit parents are able to make the best decisions concerning their children and act in their best interests.  Due process therefore, requires certain minimum procedural protections before the state can burden this fundamental right.  Using the three-part balancing test in Mathews v Eldridge, 424 US 319 (1976), the Supreme Court determined that application of the one-parent doctrine impermissibly infringes on the fundamental rights of unadjudicated parents without providing adequate protections, and thus was unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause.
 
The dissent focused on the presumption of constitutionality of the statute and posited that the statute could be interpreted as requiring a finding of unfitness of both parents before imposing a services plan or determining that removal was “necessary in the interest of the child,” MCL 712A.18f(1)(c) and (d) and (4) and MCR 3.973(F)(2).  The dissent agreed that the State cannot interfere with a parent’s parental rights unless a court first finds that the parent is unfit, but argued that due process did not demand a trial to protect that right, and believed the unadjudicated parent’s right to participate in hearings during the dispositional phase provided constitutionally adequate protection.  The dissent underscored the fact that once a jury has determined that one parent has abused or neglected the child during the adjudicative phase, that child should not have to wait for a placement until a determination has been made that the other parent also abused or neglected the child.  The dissent also predicted that the cost to the State in having two different hearings to determine fitness for both parents would impose a burden that will be placed on the abused or neglected children, who are in the greatest need for expedited protection from the State.  The majority responded that those additional burdens did not outweigh the risks associated with depriving a parent of their fundamental rights.

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