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In re M.M.

Court of Appeals of Iowa

June 7, 2017

IN THE INTEREST OF M.M., Minor Child, R.M., Father, Appellant, K.C., Mother, Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Rachael E. Seymour, District Associate Judge.

         Parents appeal from the juvenile court order terminating their parental rights in their child pursuant to Iowa Code chapter 232 (2016). AFFIRMED AS TO THE FATHER AND REVERSED AND REMANDED AS TO THE MOTHER.

          Colin R. McCormack of Van Cleaf & McCormack Law Firm, L.L.P., Des Moines, for appellant father.

          Karmen R. Anderson of The Law Office of Karmen Anderson, Des Moines, for appellant mother.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kristi A. Traynor, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

          Brent Pattison and Joseph Reed of Drake Legal Clinic, Des Moines, guardian ad litem for minor child.

          Considered by Vogel, P.J., and Doyle and McDonald, JJ.

          MCDONALD, Judge.

         The mother and the father of M.M. appeal from the juvenile court order terminating their parental rights in M.M. The juvenile court terminated the parents' respective rights pursuant to Iowa Code chapter 232.116(1)(h) (2016). The mother contends the State failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence the grounds authorizing termination of her parental rights. The father does not challenge the State's case. Instead, he argues, if the mother prevails on her appeal, then his parental rights should also not be terminated. "We review proceedings terminating parental rights de novo." See In re D.W., 791 N.W.2d 703, 706 (Iowa 2010).

         "[T]he relationship between parent and child is constitutionally protected." Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246, 255 (1978). "[T]he custody, care, and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparation for obligations the state can neither supply nor hinder." Id. (quoting Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166 (1944)). At the same time, "[t]he State has a duty to assure that every child within its borders receives proper care and treatment, and must intercede when parents fail to provide it." In re A.M., 856 N.W.2d 365, 376 (Iowa 2014).

         Iowa Code chapter 232 codifies the balance our legislature has struck between these competing interests. Pursuant to section 232.116(1), the State must first prove a statutory ground authorizing the termination of a parent's rights. See In re P.L., 778 N.W.2d 33, 39 (Iowa 2010). Second, pursuant to section 232.116(2), the State must prove termination of parental rights is in the best interest of the child. See id. Third, if the State has proved both the existence of statutory harm and termination of a parent's rights is in the best interest of the child, the juvenile court must consider whether any countervailing considerations set forth in section 232.116(3) should nonetheless preclude termination of parental rights. See id. These countervailing considerations are permissive, not mandatory. See In re M.W., 876 N.W.2d 212, 225 (Iowa 2016). "The court has discretion, based on the unique circumstances of each case and the best interests of the child, whether to apply the factors in this section to save the parent-child relationship." In re D.S., 806 N.W.2d 458, 475 (Iowa Ct. App. 2011) (citing In re C.L.H., 500 N.W.2d 449, 454 (Iowa Ct. App. 1993)).

         The State has the burden to prove its case by clear and convincing evidence. See Iowa Code § 232.96. "Clear and convincing evidence is more than a preponderance of the evidence and less than evidence beyond a reasonable doubt." In re L.G., 532 N.W.2d 478, 481 (Iowa Ct. App. 1995). It is the highest evidentiary burden in civil cases. It means there must be no serious or substantial doubt about the correctness of a particular conclusion drawn from the evidence. See id. This significant burden is imposed on the State to minimize the risk of an erroneous deprivation of the parent's fundamental liberty interest in raising his or her child. See Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 759 (1982). We therefore cannot rubber stamp what has come before; it is our task to ensure the State has come forth with the quantum and quality of evidence necessary to prove each of the elements of its case. See id. at 769 ("A majority of the States have concluded that a 'clear and convincing evidence' standard of proof strikes a fair balance between the rights of the natural parents and the State's legitimate concerns. We hold that such a standard adequately conveys to the factfinder the level of subjective certainty about his factual conclusions necessary to satisfy due process.").

         The juvenile court terminated each parent's respective rights pursuant to section 232.116(1)(h). This section requires the State to prove by "clear and convincing evidence that the child cannot be returned to the custody of the child's parents as provided in section 232.102 at the present time." Iowa

         Code § 232.116(1)(h)(4). "[A] child cannot be returned to the parent under Iowa Code section 232.102 if by doing so the child would be exposed to any harm amounting to a new child in need of assistance adjudication." In re M.M., 483 N.W.2d 812, 814 (Iowa 1992). We have interpreted this to mean the State must establish the child would be exposed to "an appreciable risk of adjudicatory harm within the meaning of section 232.102" ...


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