Brief Fact Summary. Petitioner parents challenged the constitutionality of a New York statute permitting permanent termination of parental rights based upon a preponderance of the evidence standard.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires more than a preponderance of the evidence standard in a termination of parental rights hearing.
Issue. Is the New York statute permitting the State to terminate the rights of parents in their natural child upon a finding that the State has proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the child is permanently neglected constitutional?
Held. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires more than a preponderance of the evidence standard in a termination of parental rights hearing.
New York authorizes its officials to remove a child from the home if the child appears neglected. If convinced that positive, nurturing parent-child relationships no longer exist, the State may initiate permanent neglect proceedings to free the child for adoption. However, New York permits the establishment of permanent neglect by a preponderance of the evidence, a lower standard than most states.
Two questions arise: whether process is constitutionally due a natural parent at a State’s parental rights termination proceeding, and if so, what process is due? The fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody, and management of their child does not evaporate simply because the parents have lost custody. Parents retain a vital interest in preventing the irretrievable destruction of their family life. When the State seeks to destroy these bonds, it must provide parents with fundamentally fair procedures.
The nature of the process due turns on the balancing of three distinct factors: 1) the private interests affected by the proceeding; 2) the risk of error created by the State’s chosen procedure; 3) the countervailing governmental interest supporting use of the challenged procedure. Evaluation of these factors compels the conclusion that use of a fair preponderance of the evidence standard in these cases is inconsistent with due process.
Whether the loss threatened by a proceeding is sufficiently grave to warrant increased certainty turns on both the nature of the private interest threatened and the permanency of the threatened loss. When the State initiates a parental rights termination proceeding, it seeks to end a fundamental liberty interest. Thus, the first factor weighs heavily against use of the preponderance standard.
Until the State proves parental unfitness, the child and parents share a vital interest in preventing erroneous termination of their natural relationship. Thus, the interests of the child and his parents coincide to favor use of error-reducing procedures. At the fact-finding permanent neglect proceedings, numerous factors combine to magnify the risk of erroneous factfinding. They employ imprecise substantive standards that leave determinations largely up to the subjective values of the judge. The court possesses unusual discretion, and the fact that the parents are often poor, uneducated, or minorities, they are vulnerable to judgments based on cultural or class bias. The State’s ability to assemble a case dwarfs the parents’ ability to mount a defense, and the primary witnesses are often the agency’s own professional caseworkers. Finally, there is no double jeopardy defense available to parents to forestall future termination efforts. These factors create a significant prosp
ect of erroneous termination.
Raising the standard of proof would have both practical and symbolic consequences. It would impress the factfinder with the importance of the decision, and hopefully reduce inappropriate terminations. The Appellate Division erroneously suggested that a preponderance standard properly allocated the risk of error between the parents and the child. For the child, the likely consequence of an erroneous failure to terminate is preservation of an uneasy status quo. For the natural parents, erroneous termination would result in the unnecessary destruction of their natural family. Two state interests are at stake: a parens patriae interest in promoting the welfare of the child and a fiscal and administrative interest in reducing the cost and burden of such proceedings. A more strict standard of proof is consistent with both interests.
Dissent. New York has created an exhaustive program to assist parents in regaining child custody. Petitioners received training, and the State spent more than $15,000 in efforts to rehabilitate petitioners. Petitioners’ response was marginal at best. They wholly disregarded some of the available services and participated sporadically in others. The State moved for permanent termination based on growing concern over the length of children’s stay in foster care. The State participated in a 4-year effort to reunite the family, and petitioners were accorded procedures and protections traditionally required by due process of law. On one side is the interest of parents in a continuation of the family unit. On the other side is the often countervailing interests of the child. In addition, the State has an urgent interest in the welfare of the child. A State may accordingly conclude that the risk of error should be borne in a roughly equal fashion by use of the preponderance standard
Discussion. The majority based their decision on concerns that erroneous parental termination was of more concern than erroneous failure to terminate. The dissent found the preponderance standard constitutional because the two interests could correctly be considered to be equally balanced.