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In re B.T.B.

Court of Appeals of Utah

August 23, 2018

In the interest of B.T.B. and B.Z.B., persons under eighteen years of age.
v.
V. T.B., Appellant,
v.
J.P.B., Appellee.

          Fifth District Juvenile Court, St. George Department The Honorable Michael F. Leavitt No. 1142575

          J. Robert Latham, Attorney for Appellant

          LaMar J. Winward, Attorney for Appellee Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

          HARRIS, JUDGE

         ¶1 V.T.B. (Father) appeals the juvenile court's order terminating his parental rights to his children, B.T.B. and B.Z.B. He contends that termination was not "strictly necessary" in this case, for various reasons. Father's arguments compel us to directly analyze the meaning of the phrase "strictly necessary," as used in Utah Code section 78A-6-507(1), and require us to examine how that relatively new statutory admonition fits with the historical two-part test we have long applied in termination of parental rights cases.

         ¶2 In order to comprehensively answer these questions, we find it necessary to re-examine and disavow some of our case law in this area. Ultimately, we conclude that courts should analyze the "strictly necessary" language as part of the "best interest" element of our historical test, but we emphasize that- partly because of the addition of the "strictly necessary" aspect of the analysis-the "best interest" inquiry should be applied in a more thorough and independent manner than some of our cases might suggest. Because we clarify and partially reformulate the test for termination of parental rights, we remand this case to the juvenile court for reconsideration in light of this opinion.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶3 Father and J.P.B. (Mother) married in 2010 and divorced in 2013. B.T.B. and B.Z.B. (the Children) are their children. After the divorce, the Children remained in Mother's custody; they have never been in the custody of the State. Beginning in 2012, Father has periodically been incarcerated for a variety of offenses, largely resulting from drug use. Since the divorce, Father has had only occasional contact with the Children, visiting them a total of fourteen times and sending them infrequent letters and Facebook messages. Father has never paid child support, despite being ordered to do so.

         ¶4 In March 2017, Mother filed a petition with the juvenile court to terminate Father's parental rights. As discussed in greater detail below, Utah courts have historically applied a two-part test when considering whether to terminate parental rights: (1) whether statutory grounds for termination are present, and (2) whether termination of the parent's rights is in the best interest of the affected child. See In re T.E., 2011 UT 51, ¶¶ 17-18, 266 P.3d 739. At the termination of parental rights hearing, Mother argued that statutory grounds for termination existed because Father had abandoned and neglected the Children, and had made only "token efforts" to communicate with them. Mother argued that it would be in the Children's best interests for Father's parental rights to be terminated because it "ripped [the Children's] hearts out every time" Father went to prison and dropped out of contact, causing significant instability in their lives. Mother also referenced some of our cases that indicate that, when statutory grounds for termination are present, it follows "almost automatically" that it will be in the child's best interest to terminate the parent's rights. Although Father did not contest the existence of statutory grounds for termination, he argued that it was not in the Children's best interests to terminate his rights because he "loves [the Children], loves to be with [the Children], cares about them, [and] wants to protect them," and because the Children could benefit from having a "strong relationship" with him.

         ¶5 Father also advanced a separate argument, pointing out that the Utah Legislature modified the relevant statutory language to state that courts may terminate parental rights only if they find termination to be "strictly necessary." See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1) (LexisNexis 2012). Father argued that this statutory modification required the juvenile court to find that termination was "strictly necessary" before terminating his parental rights, and argued that this requirement could not be met unless the termination was required to "free the children for adoption." Thus, Father asserted that, because Mother's petition did not anticipate an adoption or any other change in the Children's living situation, it was not "strictly necessary" to terminate his rights.

         ¶6 After taking the matter under advisement, the juvenile court issued an order terminating Father's rights. The court found that several statutory grounds for termination were present. The court further determined that termination of Father's parental rights would be in the Children's best interests, because "[t]he Children have not had the opportunity to establish any kind of appropriate parent-child relationship" with Father and because reintroduction of Father into the Children's lives would likely require "reintroduction therapy," which the court determined would "not provide the Children the kind of permanency that they need and deserve." The court "separately" analyzed whether termination of Father's rights was "strictly necessary," and rejected Father's argument that, without a pending adoption, termination could never be "strictly necessary." The court found it "strictly necessary" to terminate Father's rights, because Father's "inconsistent parent time . . . will continue to damage the Children unless they are given a more permanent living situation," and determined that "such permanency is only available to the Children by terminating" Father's rights.

         ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         ¶7 Father appeals the juvenile court's order terminating his rights. The crux of the appeal is whether the juvenile court correctly applied the "strictly necessary" language to the historical test for termination of parental rights. We review a trial court's interpretation of a statute for correctness. Holste v. State, 2018 UT App 67, ¶ 5.

         ¶8 The ultimate decision about whether to terminate a parent's rights "presents a mixed question of law and fact." In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 435. In such situations, we review a trial court's "findings for clear error and its conclusions of law for correctness, affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts." In re G.B., 2002 UT App 270, ¶ 11, 53 P.3d 963 (quotation simplified). Indeed, due to the "factually intense nature" of the analysis, a trial court's final decision regarding termination of parental rights "should be afforded a high degree of deference." In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12. Accordingly, to overturn a trial court's decision in a termination case, "the result must be against the clear weight of the evidence or leave the appellate court with a firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made." Id. (quotation simplified).

         ANALYSIS

         I

         ¶9 A parent's right to raise his or her child is one of the most precious rights any person enjoys, and is among the fundamental rights clearly protected by our federal and state constitutions. See Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65-66 (2000). Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has stated that "the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children" is "perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests" the court recognizes. Id. at 65; see also id. at 66 (citing cases, and stating that "[i]n light of this extensive precedent, it cannot now be doubted that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children").

         ¶10 For its part, our supreme court has been no less emphatic in its description of the constitutional importance of the rights of parents, declaring that "[a] parent has a fundamental right, protected by the Constitution, to sustain his relationship with his child," that "[i]t is fundamental to our jurisprudence that the custody, care, and nurture of the child reside first in the parents," and that "the interest of parents in their relationship with their children is sufficiently fundamental to come within the finite class of liberty interests protected by the Fourteenth Amendment." In re J.P., 648 P.2d 1364, 1372 (Utah 1982) (quotation simplified).

         ¶11 Our legislature has expressed a similar view, making legislative findings that "[u]nder both the United States Constitution and the constitution of this state, a parent possesses a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent's children." Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-201(1)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2017); see also id. § 78A-6-503(1) (making identical findings). This fundamental liberty interest "does not cease to exist simply because a parent may fail to be a model parent." Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-201(1)(b). Indeed, "[a]t all times, a parent retains a vital interest in preventing the irretrievable destruction of family life." Id.

         ¶12 Given the constitutional dimension of parental rights, the legal standards for terminating them are strict. Our supreme court has so stated on several occasions, emphasizing that "[t]he termination of parental rights is a drastic measure that should be resorted to only in extreme cases, when it is clear that the home is unable or unwilling to correct the evils that exist." In re A.H., 716 P.2d 284, 287 (Utah 1986); see also In re Castillo, 632 P.2d 855, 856 (Utah 1981) (stating that "it is not our view . . . that the termination of parental rights can be decreed without giving serious consideration to the prior and fundamental right of a parent to rear his [or her] child"); In re Baby Girl Marie, 561 P.2d 1046, 1048 (Utah 1977) (stating that "[t]he permanent termination of all parental rights is one of the most drastic actions the state can take").

         ¶13 Under the test established by our legislature and our supreme court, parental rights can be terminated only if both elements of a two-part test are satisfied. First, a trial court must find that one or more of the statutory grounds for termination are present. See In re A.C.M., 2009 UT 30, ¶ 23, 221 P.3d 185. In the current statute, these statutory grounds are listed in Utah Code section 78A-6-507, and include things such as abuse, neglect, and abandonment. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1). Second, a trial court must find that "termination of the parent's rights is in the best interests of the child." A.C.M., 2009 UT 30, ¶ 23; see also In re T.E., 2011 UT 51, ¶ 18; Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-503(12) (stating that, if it finds statutory grounds for termination, "the court shall then consider the welfare and best interest of the child of paramount importance in determining whether termination of parental rights shall be ordered"). The trial court must make both of these findings not merely by a preponderance of the evidence, but by "clear and convincing evidence," see In re T.E., 2011 UT 51, ¶ 17, and the burden of proof rests with the petitioner, see Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-506(3) (LexisNexis 2012).

         ¶14 Each part of this test is important. Indeed, our supreme court once rejected, as unconstitutional, legislative efforts to remove the first part of the test-the one that requires the presence of parental unfitness (or similar ground) before termination occurs. See In re J.P., 648 P.2d at 1374-75. At issue in that case was a 1980 statute that eliminated all statutory grounds for termination, and reduced the test simply to whether "such termination will be in the child's best interest." Id. at 1368. Our supreme court held that statute unconstitutional, stating that "termination of parental rights solely on the basis of the child's best interest and without any finding of parental unfitness, abandonment, or substantial neglect, violates the parent's [constitutional] liberty rights." Id. at 1375. The court rejected the State's argument, in defense of the statute, that "any distinction (between the best interest and unfitness standards) is a mere matter of semantics." Id. at 1368 (quotation simplified). The court emphasized that the test for termination of parental rights properly contains both elements, explaining that "[t]he best interest of the child has always been a paramount or 'polar star' principle in cases involving termination of parental rights," and is "a vital ingredient in a determination that has at least two elements," but that "no court is warranted in applying the 'polar star principle'" until after evidence of unfitness is present. Id. (quotation simplified).[1]

         ¶15 Indeed, our supreme court has never endorsed any watering-down of the two-part test for termination of parental rights. That court has always articulated a test comprised of two distinct, rigorous parts, each of which must be satisfied before parental rights can be terminated. See In re T.E., 2011 UT 51, ¶¶ 17-18; In re A.C.M., 2009 UT 30, ¶ 23; see also In re J.P., 648 P.2d at 1368 (rejecting the argument that there was only minimal distinction between the two elements of the test). The court must find that one of the statutory grounds (e.g., abuse, neglect, abandonment) is present, and that termination of parental rights is in the best interest of the child.

         ¶16 And, at least not in recent years (the 1980 episode notwithstanding), our legislature has not attempted to weaken the two-part test either. The statutory scheme currently requires the presence of one or more grounds for termination, such as abuse, neglect, or abandonment, see Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1)(a)-(i), and, in addition, twice instructs courts that, even where statutory grounds are present, they must still "consider the welfare and best interest of the child of paramount importance in determining whether termination of parental rights shall be ordered," see id. § 78A-6-503(12); see also id. § 78A-6-506(3) (stating that, after the petitioner has established grounds for termination by clear and convincing evidence, "the court shall then consider the welfare and best interest of the child of paramount importance in determining whether termination of parental rights shall be ordered").

         ¶17 Moreover, in 2012 the legislature inserted new language into section 507, stating that a court may terminate parental rights only "if the court finds [termination] strictly necessary." See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1). We must here decide what that additional language means and how it fits with the historical two-part test, but it is obvious from the language used ("strictly necessary") that the legislature was not attempting to make it easier for courts to terminate parental rights.

         ¶18 Thus, every indication from our legislature and our supreme court demonstrates that our law has had, and continues to have, a rigorous test that does not permit termination of a parent's fundamental constitutional right to parent his or her child unless both (a) statutory grounds for termination are present, and (b) termination is in the best interest of the child.

         II

         ¶19 Since the 2012 statutory amendment, we have mentioned the "strictly necessary" language on a number of occasions, [2] but we have not provided definitive guidance on whether, and how, the "strictly necessary" statutory addition affected the historical two-part test for termination of parental rights. Given the questions raised in Father's appeal, we must address these issues. In order to do so comprehensively, we must examine not only the statutory language in question ("strictly necessary"), but also some of our case law that is inconsistent with the statutory language.

         ¶20 In contrast to our supreme court and our legislature, this court has developed a line of cases that has gradually but meaningfully diluted the second ("best interest") element of the two-part test. This ...


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