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A Better Partnership
April 28, 2016

COA: DHHS must conduct an individualized assessment before terminating the rights of a cognitively impaired parent

A parent who is cognitively impaired requires different accommodations than a parent with average cognitive abilities, the Court of Appeals held in In re Hicks/Brown Minors, No. 328870.  Absent individualized accommodations, terminating the rights of a parent with a cognitive impairment is a violation of the statutory duty to make reasonable efforts to reunite the family.
 
Respondent is a mother of two young children.  She possesses a cognitive disability.  In 2011, Respondent lost her support system and voluntarily relinquished custody of her daughter to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).  After Respondent’s son was born, DHHS took custody of him as well.  In the subsequent three years, DHHS provided services geared toward a parent with average cognitive abilities, but did not provide services geared toward assisting a cognitively impaired parent.  Nevertheless, in 2015, DHHS filed a petition seeking termination of Respondent’s parental rights.  The petition alleged that Respondent had not gotten her GED, secured housing, or obtained income, and further stated that Respondent had not benefited from services to the point she could safely parent her children.  At the termination hearing, DHHS provided no evidence that specialized services would have helped Respondent safely raise her children.  The court subsequently terminated Respondent’s parental rights.
 
As an initial matter, the Court of Appeals addressed whether Respondent had preserved her challenge to the level of services provided.  The Court concluded that based on the length of time between her attorney’s objections to the services and the termination proceedings—ten months—Respondent did not waive her challenges. 
 
The Court next reviewed the question of whether reasonable accommodations were made for Respondent.  The Court noted that the primary inquiry for assessing reasonable accommodations is whether the services were individualized.  Although Michigan had not previously addressed reasonable accommodations in the context of cognitively impaired parents, the Court concluded that in such situations, DHHS must offer evaluations to assess the parent’s disability and must secure recommendations for tailoring necessary reunification services to the parent.  Because DHHS had failed to conduct an individualized analysis of Respondent’s needs, the Court held that DHHS violated its statutory duty to provide reasonable accommodations to Respondent.  Accordingly, the Court vacated the circuit court’s order terminating Respondent’s parental rights and remanded for further proceedings. 

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