Child abuse cases are extremely difficult to deal with by the court and attorneys. Making them worse is when a parent is unable to accept the reality that a spouse – the abuser – has to be cut out of their lives if they hope to keep their children. A recent case in Berks County is such a situation. Fortunately, the Court and those acting on the behalf of the children stepped in and have given these children a chance at a better life.
In January of this year, Judge Jeffery Schmehl of Berks County wrote a strong Opinion in favor of the termination of a mother’s parental rights to her children, ranging in ages from one to seven. The facts of the case are as heartbreaking as they are disturbing, but demonstrate the Court’s interests in protecting the welfare of children and the application of 23 Pa.C.S.A. §2511 to involuntarily terminate a parent’s rights.
Judge Schmehl’s Opinion was written based on Mother’s appeal of his order terminating her rights. Specifically, she sought reunification with her four children (her two older children have resided with their paternal grandmother since 2008 and were not subject to the parental termination actions). The Mother was involved in two abusive relationships with the natural Father of her children and her Husband. Neither of the men filed appeals to the Orders terminating their parental rights. Her husband was incarcerated for physically abusing their infant daughter.
Typically, parental rights will be terminated if a parent has not had contact with their child; or has failed to fulfill a parental role with their child for a period of six months or more. In the instant care, the Mother may not have technically failed to have contact with the children for six months, but as the facts demonstrate, she displayed conduct which fell within §2511(a)(2) and allowed for termination on the grounds that “the repeated and continued incapacity, abuse, neglect or refusal of the parent has caused the child to be without essential parental care, control or assistance necessary for his physical or mental well being and the conditions and causes of the incapacity, abuse, neglect or refusal cannot or will not be remedied by the parent.”
Mother had been treated for mental health issues for a long period of time prior to the termination hearing. After having arrived on the radar of Berks County Children in Youth Services in or around 2003, she accumulated nine (9) reports to CYS over an eight year period. The most recent report being in November 2011 when the children were placed in the care of the agency pursuant to a Voluntary Placement Agreement signed by the children’s parents.
Their youngest child, 6 months at the time, had to be hospitalized for major bruising and injuries consistent with the violent shaking of the child by an adult. The authorities quickly determined Mother’s husband to be the offender and he was subsequently found guilty of simple assault and endangering the welfare of the children. This same child also showed pronounced flattening of the back of her head due to having been placed in a car seat for extended periods of time. In short, these children were subject to what amounted to neglect, abuse, and a total lack of suitable living conditions including vermin infestation. Mother had numerous violations of the safety plans which had been instituted for the family by CYS while they were undergoing general protective services.
Mother’s mental health problems were insufficiently addressed by her, notably, her continued contact with her husband while he was incarcerated for abusing their infant child, as well as her failure to comply with urine analysis testing. She also subjected the children to phone calls with her husband while he was incarcerated. Most disturbingly, Mother has little to no understanding of the severity of the crimes committed by her Husband against the children; that she was still trying to perpetuate a relationship with her Husband, as well as between he and the children demonstrated to the Court that Mother was unable to comprehend what was best for the children or to serve as their protector.
Mother took no responsibility for the injuries to their infant daughter, in fact, she was found to have written a letter to Father acknowledging that she did not blame him for the baby’s injuries. Mother’s narcissistic behavior prevented her from being able to adequately perform her parental duties and she clearly placed her needs above those of her children.
While Mother was failing in her psychological and emotional evaluations, the children were doing well in their foster placements. The children, having been given stable and healthy living environments, began to make progress and were having their physical and emotional needs met. The most detrimental element for these children was their parents. Once their parents were removed from the equation, the children began to thrive.
In issuing his termination Order, Judge Schmehl cited applicable case law and statutory authority which allows the Commonwealth to terminate the parental rights and duties of a parent if the parent is unable to or refuses to perform those duties. It is the child’s right to fulfillment of his or her potential in a permanent, healthy, safe environment with proper parenting that supersedes the parents’ constitutional right to custody in the rearing of the child. Citing, In re: DJS, 737 A.2d 283, (Pa. Super 1999) and 23 Pa.CSA 2511(b).
In terminating the rights of a parent, the court must give primary consideration to the development, physical and emotional needs of the child. In this case, CYS had, initially, two concurrent goals: return the children to the most appropriate parent; and the adoption of the children by third-parties. Once it became clear that the most appropriate parent – Mother – was not appropriate at all, adoption of the children became the priority.
Of all the issues which are present in this case, it appears that the most damaging to Mother – and by extension the children – was her refusal to sever ties with her abusive husband. In refusing to chose the health, safety, and welfare of her children over her relationship with a child abuser, the Court took the view that she was refusing to perform parental duties under Pennsylvania case law and statute. Ultimately, Mother’s desire to have a strong bond with her husband and her failure to improve the conditions which led to the children’s placement, justified the termination of her parental rights.