In re J.M., Juvenile, 2015 VT 94 (July 17, 2015) involved the Department of Child and Family’s appeal of a family court decision declining to terminate a father’s parental rights.
Issue: Following a long and difficult history of abuse and DCF involvement with the family, the State sought the termination of both mother’s and father’s parental rights to J.M. and his older brother, W.M. Mother agreed to relinquish parental rights to both children, contingent upon the family court also granting DCF’s petition to terminate father’s parental rights. The family court found it was in the best interests of W.M., who was then established and thriving with foster parents, for father’s parental rights to be terminated. The family court, however, declined to terminate father’s parental rights to J.M. The State appealed.
Holding: In affirming the family court’s decision to preserve father’s parental rights, the Supreme Court held that no single criteria in 33 VSA 5114(a) is dispositive when conducting a best interests analysis. Specifically, the Supreme Court clarified that despite previous decisions identifying a parent’s ability to resume parental responsibilities within a reasonable time as the “most important” factor, such a finding was not outcome-determinative to the exclusion of the other statutory factors. Therefore, the family court did not err in declining to terminate father’s parental rights while at the same time finding it was unlikely he could resume primary parenting responsibility within a reasonable time. The Supreme Court instead held that the family court appropriately balanced all statutory factors and rightly considered that the father, despite his shortcomings, had remained a consistent part of J.M.’s life and that it was in the minor child’s best interests for their relationship to continue.