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Adoption of Riahleigh M.

Supreme Court of Maine

February 14, 2019


          Argued: October 11, 2018

          Michael G. Keefe, Esq. (orally), Portland, for appellant father of Riahleigh M.

          John F. Zink, Esq. (orally), Freeport, for appellant father of MyAnnah D.

          Timothy E. Robbins, Esq. (orally), South Portland, for appellee maternal grandmother

          Christopher Berry, Esq., Bridgton, for Amicus Curiae, The American Academy of Adoption & Assisted Reproduction Attorneys


          SAUFLEY, C.J.

         [¶1] In the two appeals that we address in this consolidated opinion, we consider whether a parent whose parental rights are at stake in a judicial termination proceeding that does not involve the Department of Health and Human Services is constitutionally entitled to the services that are ordinarily provided in a title 22 child protection action after a court has found abuse or neglect or has placed a child in foster care under the supervision of the Department. In the matters before us, the fathers of half-sisters Riahleigh M. and MyAnnah D. appeal from separate judgments of the Cumberland County Probate Court [Mazziotti, J.) granting the petitions of the children's maternal grandmother to terminate the fathers' parental rights as part of the proceeding through which the grandmother seeks to adopt the children.

         [¶2] During the separate proceedings in these actions, the court denied each father's motion for an order requiring the provision of rehabilitation and reunification services.[1] Before us, the fathers argue that they were deprived of due process and equal protection of the law when the court denied these motions. We conclude that the court did not violate the rights secured to the fathers by the Maine and federal constitutions, and that the court did not err or abuse its discretion by entering the judgments terminating the fathers' parental rights. Accordingly, we affirm the judgments.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶3] The following facts are drawn from the procedural record and from the court's findings, which are supported by the evidence. See In re Evelyn A, 2017 ME 182, ¶ 4, 169 A.3d 914.

         [¶4] Riahleigh was born in 2006, and MyAnnah was born in 2012. The children have the same mother but different fathers. The children now reside in the safe and healthy home of their maternal grandmother. A District Court parental rights and responsibilities order regarding Riahleigh and a Probate Court guardianship order regarding MyAnnah placed the children in the grandmother's care. In early 2015, the grandmother filed petitions in the Probate Court to adopt the two children and petitions to terminate each parent's parental rights.[2] The court appointed counsel for the mother and each father. See 18-AM.R.S. §9-106(a) (2017).[3] It also appointed a guardian ad litem in each matter. See 18-A M.R.S. § 9-204(c) (2017).

         [¶5] The mother and both fathers unsuccessfully moved for the court to order the provision of rehabilitation and reunification services consistent with the services that would have been available if a court had found abuse or neglect or the children had been placed in foster care in a child protection matter. Cf. 22 M.R.S. §§ 4036-B, 4041 (2017). Neither of the fathers specified in his motion what specific services he wanted to receive, apart from a generic request by the father of MyAnnah that services include "visitation, parenting counseling, and mental health counseling." Neither motion requested payment for the services from any specific party or from the State, nor did either father argue that any specific services were designed to remedy particular parenting deficits.

         [¶6] The court scheduled separate trials on the two termination petitions, but before either trial was held, the mother consented to the termination of her parental rights to both children to enable the grandmother to adopt the children. The trials were therefore limited to the question of whether the fathers' parental rights should be terminated.

         [¶7] After each trial, the court entered a judgment[4] terminating that father's parental rights upon finding that the father was unwilling or unable to protect his child from jeopardy and that these circumstances were unlikely to change within a time reasonably calculated to meet her needs, that he was unwilling or unable to take responsibility for his child within a time reasonably calculated to meet her needs, and that termination of the father's parental rights was in his child's best interest. See 22 M.R.S. § 4055(1)(A)(2), (B)(2)(a), (b)(i)-(ii) (2017). Each father timely appealed, and we invited amicus briefs on the constitutional issues raised by the fathers in their briefs. We now consider both appeals.


         [¶8] In this opinion, we first summarize the statutory basis for the Department's obligation to provide rehabilitation and reunification services to parents in title 22 child protection matters. We then address the fathers' arguments that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the federal and state constitutions require that parents be provided with similar services by court order in private adoption matters in which petitions to terminate parental rights have been filed. Finally, we review the court's findings and discretionary determinations in support of the termination judgments.

         A. Statutory Obligation to Provide Rehabilitation and Reunification Services

         [¶9] The Department's obligation to provide rehabilitation and reunification services is triggered in a title 22 child protection matter when a parent is found to have subjected a child to abuse or neglect or a child has been removed from the home for sixty days. 22 M.R.S. §4041(1-A). In those circumstances, the Department is ordinarily[5] required to formulate a rehabilitation and reunification plan that includes the following:

(iv) Services that must be provided or made available to assist the parent in rehabilitating and reunifying with the child, as appropriate to the child and family, including, but not limited to, reasonable transportation for the parent for visits and services, child care, housing assistance, assistance with transportation to and from required services and other services that support reunification; [and]
(v) A schedule of and conditions for visits between the child and the parent designed to provide the parent and child time together in settings that provide as positive a parent-child interaction as can practicably be achieved while ensuring the emotional and physical well-being of the child when visits are not detrimental to the child's best interests.

22 M.R.S. § 4041(1-A)(A)(1)(c).[6]

         [¶10] It is the parent, however, who ultimately bears the responsibility to rehabilitate and reunify with the child. See 22 M.R.S. § 4041(1-A)(B). The parental responsibilities identified in that statute require the parent to "[r]ectify and resolve problems that prevent the return of the child to the home," to "[s]eek and utilize appropriate services to assist in rehabilitating and reunifying with the child," and to "[p]ay reasonable sums toward the support of the child within the limits of the parent's ability to pay." Id. § 4041(1-A)(B)(1), (5), (6).

         [¶11] Thus, the parent has the obligation to remedy the parenting deficits that resulted in the removal or the finding of abuse or neglect, and the Department bears a responsibility to "make reasonable efforts to rehabilitate and reunify the family," including by making services available to the family. 22 M.R.S. § 4036-B(4); see also id. § 4041(l-A)(A), (B).

         [¶12] In the absence of a judicial finding of abuse or neglect or removal from the home, however, the Department does not bear the same statutory responsibilities. When a dispute exists between or among private parties in a family matter, including in an adoption proceeding, neither the Department nor any of the other parties has a statutorily created obligation to provide or participate in rehabilitation and reunification services for a parent whose rights are at stake. Adoption of Isabelle T., 2017 ME 220, ¶ 12, 175 A.3d 639. As we have observed, the Adoption Act, 18-A M.R.S. §§9-101 to 9-404 (2017), "does not require-or even authorize-the court to consider rehabilitation or reunification efforts prior to terminating parental rights" in private adoption proceedings. Adoption of Isabelle T., 2017 ME 220, ¶ 12, 175 A.3d 639; see also Adoption of I.E., 2012 ME 127, ¶ 13, 56 A.3d 1234 ("During an adoption proceeding, the Probate Court is not required to order attempts at reunification before terminating parental rights.").[7] "There is no state assertion of parental unfitness in private termination/adoption proceedings, and the Adoption Act provides fewer protections for parents than those provided in Title 22 child protection proceedings." Adoption of Isabelle T., 2017 ME 220, ¶ 11, 175 A.3d 639; see 22 M.R.S. §§ 4001-4068 (2017).

         [¶13] Thus, as a statutory matter, in private family matter proceedings, a parent may have his or her parental rights restricted or terminated even in the absence of services that would be aimed at rehabilitating that parent. See Adoption oflsabelle T., 2017 ME 220, ¶ 14, 175 A.3d 639. Although such a "rehabilitation and reunification plan is the centerpiece of child protective proceedings following a jeopardy determination," a plan is not implicated when there has been no removal or finding of abuse or neglect. In re Thomas D., 2004 ME 104, ¶ 26, 854 A.2d 195; see 18-A M.R.S. § 9-204(b); see also 22 M.R.S. §§ 4003(3), 4035, 4036-B(4), 4041(1-A).[8]

         [¶14] The question raised here is whether, to safeguard a parent's fundamental rights, the Maine and federal constitutions require courts to order services for improving parental capacity when a termination petition has been filed in a private ...

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