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Iowa: Prisoners Entitled to Full Hearing on Termination of Parental Rights

by David Reutter

The Iowa Supreme Court held on November 30, 2018 that an incarcerated parent is entitled to participate in the entire hearing for termination of parental rights.

The Court announced the new procedure in the appeal of a mother whose rights were terminated. At issue was the process due during such a hearing. The mother had requested an extension until she could appear in person, or alternatively via telephone from the South Dakota jail where she was incarcerated. The trial court denied the continuance and limited the mother’s appearance to testifying via phone; she was not allowed to participate in other parts of the hearing, including the state’s case-in-chief and closing arguments. She was represented by counsel at the May 2018 hearing, where the court terminated parental rights to five of her children due to her drug and alcohol abuse. That order was affirmed on appeal.

The Iowa Supreme Court said the case involved “careful balancing of the personal interest of litigants, the ability of the court system to accommodate and provide safeguards for litigants, and the broad interests of the government to both provide safeguards and protect the interests of all.” It found there were “ample reasons” to support the denial of a continuance, including a quick resolution of the case which was in the children’s best interests.

However, the Court also found the mother had a due process right to participate in all phases of the hearing. It noted that as a parent’s “conduct is at issue,” the parent normally has “unique and exclusive knowledge of evidence concerning the termination.” Thus, the “risk of error is too great if a parent does not have an opportunity to hear evidence and to formulate a response to it.”

The new procedure in such hearings requires juvenile court judges to give incarcerated parents an opportunity to participate in the entire hearing via phone. This may require the court to contact prison officials and explain why it is essential the parent is involved. In cases where the parent is in an out-of-state facility and a court order cannot compel corrections officials to act, the court must provide an alternative procedure, such as supplying expedited transcripts of the hearing. 

The judgments below were vacated and the case remanded for additional proceedings. See: In the Interest of M.D. v. K.A., 921 N.W.2d 229 (Iowa 2018). 

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