In In re T.M. and A.M., 2016 VT 23 (February 12, 2016), the Vermont Supreme Court concluded that the State failed to demonstrate by a clear and convincing evidence that there were sufficient changed circumstances to warrant a modification of a disposition order with concurrent goals of reunification and adoption, and so reversed the ordered modification.
Issue: Father appealed the order modifying a previous disposition order and terminating his parental rights, on the grounds that there had not been the required changed circumstances and that he had satisfied all of the goals in the prior order and remedied the circumstances that led to his children’s placement in the State’s custody.
Holding: The Court held that in order to consider modifying a prior disposition order, the family court first must find by clear and convincing evidence that there has been a material change in circumstances in the children’s lives. In termination petitions, this threshold is usually established by parental stagnation, where the parent has failed to make the progress in ameliorating the conditions that led to state intervention. It was undisputed that the father satisfied most of the goals in the plan and played a constructive role in the children’s lives. The Court held that the evidence presented regarding father’s marijuana use, and his minimization of that use, was insufficient to establish stagnation, especially in light of the absence of evidence regarding the impact of the marijuana use, or his dishonesty regarding marijuana use, on his recovery from opiate addition or his ability to parent. The Court warned that is a narrow holding closely tied to the facts of the case.
Dissent: Reiber, C.J., filed a dissent, supporting the discretion of the trial court in its finding of changed circumstances. He raised concerns regarding the evidence and experts required for a finding of parental stagnation under the majority’s decision, and the implications it will have on other cases.