Courts considering the termination of parental rights often focus extensively on how termination will affect the child’s relationship with his or her parents and other relationships as well, such as connections with grandparents. Courts are always reluctant to cut off a child’s access to family members, even if those family members historically have not taken good care of the child. In considering the future of a child’s relationships, courts may sometimes seek information from foster parents or potential adoptive parents as to whether they are willing to continue to allow the child to have a relationship with his or her family members. In a recent Wisconsin child custody case before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, the court looked at whether it is fair to consider these types of statements in termination proceedings.
In In Re N.L.P. and M.P.P., the Wisconsin Court of Appeals considered the termination of M.P.’s parental rights for failing to follow through on requirements that he maintain a closer relationship with his twin daughters, N.L.P. and M.P.P. The two girls were removed from the custody of their mother after they were discovered to have recently healed fractures that were not consistent with a fall. At the time, their mother had previously been reported for child welfare issues and was alleged to have left her children (ranging from seven years in age to infants) alone for extended periods of time. At the time, M.P. was living close to N.L.P. and M.P.P., but he had limited contact with them. He was also taking care of two other children at the time and was found to have difficulty supporting them alone. Accordingly, N.L.P. and M.P.P. were placed in foster care. A CHIPS order was implemented, and certain conditions were placed on M.P. before the girls could be returned home. These requirements included supervised visitation, parenting education, and therapy.
After several months, it was reported that M.P. was failing to meet the requirements imposed. He was inconsistent in his visits with his daughters, missed important educational and medical appointments, and did not always attend therapy. Caregivers also noticed that after unsupervised visits with his daughters, they would develop certain fears or tics, such as a stutter, that made them concerned about M.P.’s interactions with the girls. Accordingly, a year and a half later, a Petition for Termination of Parental Rights was filed against M.P. M.P. opted for a court trial, which took four days and included extensive evidence about M.P.’s actions and the girls’ situation. During the trial, the girls’ foster parents testified that they hoped that M.P. would continue a relationship with the girls even after the termination of parental rights, and they were open to accommodating that relationship. At the close of evidence, the trial court decided to terminate M.P.’s rights. M.P. appealed.