Michigan Court of Appeals Reverses Parental Rights Termination In Child Dehydration Case

On September 23rd, 2014, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed a family court's decision to terminate a couple's parental rights to their four children.  The family court terminated their rights based on evidence that the youngest of the four children - only several weeks old at the time of the alleged neglect - suffered severe dehydration during an illness and was subsequently admitted to a hospital where doctors discovered temporary kidney damage as a result of the dehydration.

In In re LaFrance Minors, Docket Nos. 319219 and 319222, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed the issues of whether the parent's medical neglect of the youngest child constituted a failure to protect the child from harm, and whether that same medical neglect of the youngest child constituted anticipatory neglect with respect to the couple's three oldest children.

The Court first recited the facts of the case.

The children involved in this case are the issue of a ten-year relationship between respondents, who never married. The petition asking the court to take jurisdiction arose from allegations that respondent-father negligently failed to recognize that the youngest child, then only several weeks old and ill with a virus, was becoming dangerously dehydrated, and as a result suffered severe, albeit temporary, kidney damage, and had to be admitted to the hospital for intensive treatment. The petition did not allege any abuse or neglect in connection with the older three children, then aged three, five, and ten years, respectively. Nor has any abuse or neglect of the three older children ever been alleged anywhere in the course of these proceedings . . .

As noted above, several weeks later while in the care of respondent-father, the infant became severely dehydrated and required emergency hospitalization. According to the medical records contained in the court file and subsequently provided testimony, the child had been ill for some time with a virus and was listless when she awoke on the morning in question. Respondent father failed to recognize the severity and speed of the infant’s deterioration and regarded her as going back to sleep when she may in fact have been losing consciousness. He stated that he attempted to give her a bottle, but that she drank nothing from it. He left for work in the early afternoon, upon which his mother took over as babysitter. After an hour or two, the grandmother became concerned that she was unable to rouse the child, and so called 9-1-1. Emergency responders stabilized the child and took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed as suffering from severe dehydration with resulting acute kidney failure, and placed in intensive care. It was estimated that she had gone without liquid intake for approximately 16 hours. Fortunately the child was successfully rehydrated and over several days recovered completely.

Upon admission of the child to the hospital, the case was flagged by the medical staff as possibly involving medical neglect or even physical abuse. The latter was initially a concern because imaging studies revealed that the child had chronic subdural hematomas. Further medical examination ruled out that the hematomas were caused by external trauma, but that fact was not immediately known.

Given the suspicious circumstances, and the infant’s critical medical condition, petitioner immediately sought and obtained emergency removal of all four children from respondents’ care the following day, November 17, 2011. The petition contained allegations concerning respondent-mother’s prenatal drug use as well as the events concerning the infant’s emergency hospitalization. Though the other three children were not referenced in any factual allegations, petitioner requested their emergency removal as well, stating, [']the Department feels that the children are at imminent risk of further harm if they are to return to the home of their mother or their father . . . [']

Petitioner sought termination of respondents’ parental rights on May 22, 2013, alleging four statutory grounds. The court conducted a two-day evidentiary hearing on the petition, then concluded that each of the four statutory grounds had been demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence and that termination was in the children’s best interests. Accordingly, the court entered an order terminating the parental rights of both respondents.

The Court's analysis of the termination of parental rights issues followed.

The only injury alleged to have occurred in connection with this case is the dehydration of the youngest child, and the kidney failure and other complications that resulted. MCL 712A.19b(3)(b) authorizes termination of parental rights where the child, or the sibling of the child suffers physical injury or physical abuse or sexual abuse under any of the following conditions:

(i) The parent’s act caused the physical injury or physical or sexual abuse and . . . there is a reasonable likelihood that the child will suffer from injury or abuse in the forseeable future if placed in the parent’s home.

(ii) The parent who had the opportunity to prevent the physical injury or physical or sexual abuse failed to do so and . . . there is a reasonable likelihood that the child will suffer injury or abuse in the forseeable future if placed in the parent’s home.

(iii) A nonparent adult’s act caused the physical injury or physical or sexual abuse and . . . there is a reasonable likelihood that the child will suffer from injury or abuse by the non-parent adult in the foreseeable future if placed in the parent’s home.

Petitioner has not alleged grounds under subsection (i) nor allege that respondent-father’s act [']caused the physical injury.['] Rather, it relies on only subsection (ii) and argues that respondent father [']had the opportunity['] to prevent the harm caused by the dehydration.

[']Contextual understanding of statutes is generally grounded in the doctrine of noscitur a sociis: ‘[i]t is known from its associates’ . . . . This doctrine stands for the principle that a word or phrase is given meaning by its context or setting.['] Koontz v Ameritech Servs, Inc, 466 Mich 304, 318; 645 NW2d 34 (2002) (quotation marks and citations omitted).

Applying this principle, we conclude that subsection (b)(ii) must be interpreted in the context of its sister subsections, (b)(i) and (b)(iii). It is clear under these provisions that for physical injury to fall within the section, it must be caused by a [']parent’s act['] or a [']non-parent adult’s act['] and not merely contributed to by a non-intentional omission. Accordingly, subsection (ii) is intended to address the parent who, while not the abuser, failed to protect the child from the other parent or non-parent adult who is an abuser. We reject the suggestion that subsection (ii) was intended to be broader than subsections (i) and (iii) in that it could apply merely to a negligent failure to respond to an accidental injury or naturally occurring medical condition not caused by an [']act['] of a parent or other adult . . .

For these reasons, we conclude MCL 712A.19b(3)(b)(ii) did not apply to this case. As we will now discuss, however, medical neglect may constitute statutory grounds for termination under the three other provisions of MCL 712A.19b(3) upon which the trial court relied . . .

The trial court concluded that termination of respondents’ parental rights was warranted under MCL 712A.19b(3)(c)(i) (conditions of adjudication continue to exist), (3)(g) (failure to provide proper care and custody), and (3)(j) (children will likely be harmed if returned). We agree with the trial court regarding the youngest child, but hold that the court erred in extending its reasoning to the three older children . . .

The trial court terminated respondents’ parental rights to their three older children by emphasizing respondents’ respective failures to gain control over their substance-abuse habits and heavily relied on the doctrine of anticipatory neglect, according to which ['][h]ow a parent treats one child is certainly probative of how that parent may treat other children.['] In the Matter of LaFlure, 48 Mich App 377, 392; 210 NW2d 482 (1973); see also In re AH, 245 Mich App 77, 84; 627 NW2d 33 (2001). However, the trial court nowhere suggested, and no evidence was offered to prove, that either respondent had ever abused or neglected any of their three older children.

Moreover, the ages and medical conditions of the three older children stand in sharp contrast to that of the youngest child. Unlike the latter, who requires special medical care for which respondents seemed to under-appreciate the need, no such special medical care was required for the older children. Moreover, respondents had cared for those children from birth without incident, including any allegation, let alone proof, that they had abused or neglected the three older children at any time. While anticipatory neglect can militate in favor of termination, under the unusual circumstances of this case, the doctrine has little bearing. Again, no allegations of abuse or neglect have ever arisen in connection with the three oldest children, and the only allegations of negligence underlying this case concern respondent-mother’s continued substance abuse during her pregnancy with the youngest child, and respondent-father’s failure to act promptly in response to that infant’s rapid medical deterioration. The three older children ranged in age from five to twelve years at the time of termination, and, thus, did not share their youngest sister’s infantile medical vulnerabilities or inability to articulate personal needs or discomforts. Moreover, concerns over the youngest child’s cerebral palsy hardly militated in favor of terminating parental rights to the older children, who suffered from no such special need. See In re Newman, 189 Mich App 61, 71; 472 NW2d 38 (1991) ([']We do not consider it appropriate to destroy a family’s relationship with five children if the major problem appears to be the parents’ inability to cope with one of them[']) . . .

Termination of parental rights requires [']both a failure and an inability to provide proper care and custody,['] which in turn requires more than [']speculative opinions . . . regarding what might happen in the future.['] In re Hulbert, 186 Mich App 600, 605; 465 NW2d 36 (1990). In the case of the youngest child, we credit the trial court’s concern that respondents’ continued substance-abuse issues, considered along with their failure to attend medical appointments or benefit from services offered to provide guidance in dealing with cerebral palsy, heightens the risk that respondents might again fail to appreciate the special needs and vulnerabilities of their infant daughter. But because no such special needs or vulnerabilities exist in relation to the three older children, we conclude that the trial court erred by invoking anticipatory neglect to extend those concerns to them as well.

For these reasons, we conclude that the trial court clearly erred in finding that termination of respondents’ parental rights to the three older children was warranted under MCL 712A.19b(3)(c)(i), (3)(g), or (3)(j) . . .

The court erred as a matter of law in concluding the medical neglect involved in this case constituted failure to prevent physical harm for purposes of MCL 712A.19b(3)(b)(ii).

The trial court did not clearly err in concluding that termination of respondents’ parental rights to their youngest child was warranted under MCL 712A.19b(3)(c)(i), (3)(g), and (3)(j).

However, the court clearly erred by extending that result to the older three children on the basis of anticipatory neglect.

We affirm the decision below as it concerns the trial court’s findings of three statutory bases for termination in connection with respondents’ youngest child, and remand for redetermination of that child’s best interests. We reverse in all other respects.