The Appellate Group

In re J.M.

In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52 (Harris, J.)

Child Welfare

Mother had her children removed after one child tested positive for drugs. Originally the juvenile court set the goal as reunification, but when Mother did not comply with the reunification plan, the court set the goal as adoption. The State filed a petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights. Then Mother made remarkable progress and completed all the goals of her plan without DCFS assistance. The juvenile court, however, terminated Mother’s parental rights. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding:

  • In finding that Mother “has neglected” the children—one of the statutory grounds for termination—the juvenile court properly considered past episodes of neglect, even if they occurred a while ago and even if the parent has since taken steps to improve her behavior. 
  • In a footnote, the Court recognizes that other statutory grounds for termination are in present tense—such as “the parent is unfit”—so the question at trial is whether the parent, at the time of the termination trial, is unfit. Courts, then, will have to consider a parent’s previous acts that might demonstrate unfitness against any current acts that might demonstrate improvement.
  • It was appropriate for the juvenile court to consider the termination of Mother’s parental rights to a prior child; consideration of a parent’s past actions is not only allowed by encouraged by the Juvenile Court Act and by caselaw interpreting it.
  • As for the best interest determination, the Court of Appeals judges might not have reached the same decision that the juvenile court reached had they been in the juvenile court’s position. But given the deferential standard of review, the Court of Appeals defers to the juvenile court’s ultimate determination because it was supported by competent findings and by record evidence.

Read the full court opinion