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Incarceration Alone Insufficient to Terminate Parental Rights in Michigan

In addition to finding that a lower court committed legal errors in terminating a prisoner’s parental rights, the Michigan Supreme Court held that incarceration alone is not a sufficient reason for termination of parental rights.

While serving a prison sentence for drunk driving and theft charges, the two sons of Michigan prisoner Richard Mason were taken into state custody after their mother, Clarissa Smith, allowed one of the children, who was three years old, to wander outside the home unsupervised.

A service plan was established by Michigan’s Department of Human Services (DHS). Pursuant to Smith’s request, the children were placed with their paternal aunt and uncle. When Mason’s prison sentence did not end as expected and Smith failed to fulfill her obligations under the service plan, DHS moved to terminate their parental rights.

Several court hearings ensued, with Mason only being allowed to participate in the first and last hearings telephonically, missing participation in five other hearings. When the court terminated his parental rights, Mason appealed. The lower court’s judgment was affirmed on appeal and the state Supreme Court granted review.

The Supreme Court held on May 26, 2010 that Mason had a right to participate in the parental rights termination proceedings by phone pursuant to MCR 2.004. He also had a right to participate in the service plan, which entitled him to services to help him comply with the plan.

The Court noted that “the state’s failures in this case (which are all too common in this type of case) appear to stem primarily from the fact of [Mason’s] incarceration.” Instead, the focus should have been on the statutory criteria in MCL 712A.19b(3)(h), which sets three conditions that must be met for termination of parental rights.

“The combination of the first two criteria – that a parent’s imprisonment deprives a child of a normal home for more than two years and the parent has not provided proper care and custody – permits a parent to provide for a child’s care and custody although the parent is in prison; he need not personally care for the child,” the Court wrote. “The third necessary condition is forward-looking; it asks whether a parent ‘will be able to’ provide proper care and custody within a reasonable time.”

Mason had participated in prison programs to comply with the service plan, had arranged for the children to be cared for by relatives, and had arranged for a job and housing to care for his children upon his release on parole, which came less than a year after his parental rights were terminated.

The Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings, finding that the lower court had “erred by terminating [Mason’s] rights under each of the grounds alleged.” See: In re Mason, 486 Mich. 142, 782 N.W.2d 747 (Mich. 2010).

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Related legal case

In re Mason