A double standard for judging parents? Court says no

Are parents who have had their children taken away automatically unfit to raise other children they may have? Under Minnesota law, it depends on whether the parents voluntarily or involuntarily gave up their parental rights.

Today, the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the law.

The Court ruled in the case of a Brooklyn Park woman whose four children were put in foster care because she was a prostitute, a drug user and because the children witnessed the woman being abused by their father. The state moved to terminate her parental rights after she refused to cut off contact with the man, or complete drug dependency counseling.

Shortly thereafter, she gave birth to her fifth child. After the mother rejected the child protection authorities’ offer that if she voluntarily gave up the right to her four children, they would not use it as a reason to take the fifth child, the newborn was placed in foster care.

The mother launched a constitutional challenge to state law, which treats parents who voluntarily terminate their rights differently from those who involuntarily lose their rights when it comes to presuming they’re unfit parents of children not yet born.

“In both circumstances, whether parental rights were terminated voluntarily or involuntarily, the juvenile court must have concluded that the best interests of the children required termination,” Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea wrote today in rejecting the argument.

The mother argues that the statutory presumption … does not meet the narrow tailoring requirement because it is underinclusive in that there are “demonstrably unfit” parents who voluntarily terminated their rights, but in a subsequent termination proceeding are not subject to the operation of a presumption of parental unfitness.

She argues that the government’s compelling interest “is at least as compelling when a palpably unfit parent voluntarily terminates as when a palpably unfit parent chooses to litigate.” No matter how “abusive or neglectful a parent may have been,” she says, the parent avoids later application of the presumption by choosing to voluntarily terminate his or her parental rights.

The mother’s argument is not convincing.

Gildea wrote that parents judged unfit have the burden of proving that they are capable of parenting children.

Justice Alan Page disagreed, writing in his dissent, “there is no compelling reason to exclude from the presumption of palpable unfitness parents who have in the past voluntarily terminated their parental rights. First, many parents who voluntarily terminate their rights satisfy the standards for involuntary termination. In such cases, the only distinction between the two classes of parents is that parents whose rights were involuntarily terminated invoked their right to a hearing.”

Had R.D.L. (the mother) agreed to Hennepin County’s proposal and voluntarily waived her parental rights to her four older children, the statutory presumption of palpable unfitness would not have applied to her newborn child.

But having rejected the offer, the presumption applied. In both cases, however, the facts with respect to R.D.L.’s ability to parent her newborn are exactly the same. Thus, I can see no compelling reason or government interest in treating the two classifications of parents differently.

Indeed, it would appear that the only reason for treating the two classes of parents differently is to put pressure on parents to voluntarily terminate their parental rights rather than asserting their right to a hearing and putting the government to its proof.

“If the State has a compelling interest in quickly removing children from parents whose rights have been involuntarily terminated, the State has an equally compelling interest in quickly removing children from parents who voluntarily terminated their rights since parents who voluntarily terminate their rights often satisfy the standards for involuntary termination,” he said.