Terese J. Singer

Wisconsin Court Upholds Termination of Rights When Parent Complains of Impossible Conditions

In Wisconsin, the procedural steps that must be completed before a parent’s rights can be terminated are extensive. Parents at risk of having their rights terminated must be offered substantial opportunities to rectify their behavior and comply with necessary steps toward reunification. But what if the compliance required is exceptionally difficult, or even impossible? A recent Wisconsin child custody case takes a look at such an argument by a parent who lost parental rights.

In In Re The Termination of Parental Rights to M.A.B. v. T.M., T.M.’s parental rights were terminated after a jury found that she did not substantially comply with the requirements imposed on her by the Monroe County Department of Human Services, and she had abandoned her children. In January 2015, T.M.’s children were removed from her home and placed in foster care, based on concerns about T.M.’s mental health. In order to have visits with her children, T.M. was required to undertake certain conditions, including submitting to drug testing, visiting with a mental health provider, contacting her social worker to inquire about her children, contacting her children as allowed by her social worker, and acknowledging important events like her children’s birthdays. Almost a year later, Monroe County moved to terminate T.M.’s parental rights on the basis of abandonment after she failed to comply with these conditions.

According to T.M.’s social worker, Gina Phelps, Ms. Phelps had attempted to contact T.M. on a variety of occasions to inform her of these conditions and discuss how to comply with them. After a hostile phone call with T.M., Ms. Phelps began to send letters to T.M. to keep her updated on these conditions and attempt to move forward. Ms. Phelps never heard from T.M. by mail or phone call, and T.M. never contacted her to inquire about her children. Ms. Phelps also testified that T.M. never showed up to appointments with her mental health providers and never contacted her children at their foster home, despite the fact that the foster parents had given her a cell phone to do so.

By contrast, T.M. testified that she attempted to contact Ms. Phelps on numerous occasions and left voicemails but got no response. T.M. testified that she only received one letter from Ms. Phelps, rather than the many letters Ms. Phelps testified that she sent. T.M. stated that she tried to go see mental health providers, but they refused her for lack of insurance. Finally, T.M. testified that she called the foster home to speak with her children and the foster parents on many occasions, but the foster parents never answered. She felt that Ms. Phelps and the foster parents did not want her to be reunited with her children.

Based on this testimony, a jury ultimately determined that T.M. failed to visit and communicate with her children as required and that she did not have good cause for doing so. They concluded that she had abandoned her children, and T.M.’s rights were terminated.

On appeal, T.M. argued that the terms imposed by Monroe County for continuing to be with her children were impossible to meet. According to T.M., it was impossible to comply with the requirements to be in touch with her social worker, her children, and their foster parents because they all refused to communicate with her. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals rejected this argument. It held that there were many aspects of T.M.’s conditions that she could have met, including submitting to drug testing, attempting to acknowledge the children’s birthdays and holidays, and continuing to follow up with the social worker about the health and condition of her children. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that even if these conditions were difficult to meet, they were not impossible, and T.M. likely could have satisfied them if she made more of an effort to do so. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals rejected T.M.’s argument for overturning the termination of her rights.

Arguing that the conditions that precede termination are impossible is a difficult argument to make. That said, it has been successful in circumstances in which the conditions are not properly tailored to a parent’s circumstances, such as when an incarcerated parent is required to have a home. If you believe that the conditions imposed on you in order to maintain contact and custody of your children are impossible or unfair, the experienced Milwaukee child custody lawyers at Reddin & Singer, LLP can work with you to contest such conditions in order to avoid a possible termination hearing. To find out more about how to protect your parental rights during termination proceedings, contact the law offices of Reddin & Singer, LLP online or give us a call at 414-271-6400.

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