IN THE INTEREST OF M.D., K.T., G.A., AND S.A., Minor Children.
K.A., Mother, Appellant.
review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.
from the Iowa District Court for Ida County, Patrick H. Tott,
incarcerated parent appeals an order by juvenile court
terminating her parental rights. DECISION OF THE
COURT OF APPEALS VACATED; JUVENILE COURT DECISION REVERSED
B. Deck of Deck Law PLC, Sioux City, for appellant.
J. Miller, Attorney General, Kathryn K. Lang, Assistant
Attorney General, Meghann Cosgrove-Whitmer, County Attorney,
and Kristal L. Phillips, Assistant County Attorney, for
D. Rynell, Public Defender, Sioux City, guardian ad litem for
appeal, we must decide the extent to which an incarcerated
parent is entitled to participate from prison by telephone in
a hearing to terminate parental rights. The juvenile court
permitted the parent to participate in the hearing by
telephone but only to give testimony and entered an order
terminating parental rights following the hearing. On appeal,
the court of appeals affirmed the decision of the juvenile
court. On further review, we vacate the decision of the court
of appeals, reverse the decision of the juvenile court, and
remand the case for an expedited hearing consistent with the
procedure set forth in this opinion. We conclude an
incarcerated parent is entitled to participate from a prison
or jail facility in the entire hearing for termination of
Background Facts and Proceedings.
juvenile court in Ida County terminated the parental rights
of a mother to her five children on May 22, 2018, following a
hearing. The children had been removed from the mother's
care prior to the hearing primarily due to her chronic drug
and alcohol abuse. She had used methamphetamines off and on
for years and was convicted and sentenced to prison in 2010
for manufacturing methamphetamine. The mother consumed and
manufactured methamphetamine in the presence of the children,
and her drug addiction adversely impacted her ability to
parent and attend to the needs and development of her
children. The children were in the care of their
respective fathers at the time of the termination hearing.
mother was incarcerated in a jail facility in Winner, South
Dakota, at the time of the termination hearing. She had been
arrested in South Dakota on multiple felony charges involving
possession of controlled substances with intent to deliver,
possession of methamphetamines, and other crimes alleged to
have occurred in three different counties in South Dakota.
Prior to the termination hearing, the mother moved for a
continuance due to her imprisonment or, alternatively,
requested to participate in the hearing by telephone.
juvenile court denied the motion for a continuance. It
concluded the resulting delay would not be in the best
interests of the children. Instead, it granted the
mother's alternative request to appear at the hearing by
telephone, but only to present her testimony and to be
cross-examined. The juvenile court, however, directed that
she present her testimony at the close of the State's
case-in-chief to allow her counsel to inform her prior to
testifying of the nature of the evidence presented by the
State in support of the termination.
throughout the hearing represented the mother. After the
State concluded the presentation of its evidence, the mother
conferred with her counsel and then presented her testimony.
At the conclusion of the telephone call, the attorneys
presented their closing arguments. The juvenile court
subsequently entered a written order terminating the
mother's parental rights.
appeal, the mother claimed the process provided by the
juvenile court for her to participate in the termination
hearing deprived her of her rights to confront witnesses,
assist in cross-examination of witnesses, and hear the
evidence offered by the State. She identified numerous
findings of fact made by the juvenile court in the juvenile
order that were based on evidence submitted by the State that
she claimed was incorrect and was unable to refute due to the
limitations on her ability to participate in the hearing.
State acknowledged the better practice may have been to allow
the mother to participate by telephone in the entire hearing,
but argued the procedure followed by the court satisfied the
minimum requirements of due process. The court of appeals
found the procedure was "good enough" under its
precedence, although it too acknowledged the "better
practice" would have been to do more to give the mother
a greater opportunity to participate in the
mother requested, and we granted, further review. She asks
that we establish the procedure for juvenile courts in this
state to follow in conducting hearings to terminate parental
rights of parents who are incarcerated. She requests a new
hearing under a procedure that gives her an opportunity to
participate in the entire hearing.
Scope of Review.
review of termination of parental rights proceedings is de
novo. In re A.S., 906 N.W.2d 467, 472 (Iowa 2018).
Although we are not bound by the juvenile court's
findings of fact, "we do give them weight, especially in
assessing the credibility of witnesses." In re
D.W., 791 N.W.2d 703, 706 (Iowa 2010). Constitutional
claims, such as the deprivation of due process, are also
reviewed de novo. P.M. v. T.B., 907 N.W.2d 522, 530
our review of a district court's denial of a motion for
continuance is for an abuse of discretion. State v.
Clark, 814 N.W.2d 551, 560 (Iowa 2012). A court abuses
its discretion when "the decision is grounded on reasons
that are clearly untenable or unreasonable," such as
"when it is based on an erroneous application of the
law." In re A.M., 856 N.W.2d 365, 370 (Iowa
2014) (quoting Office of Citizens' Aide/Ombudsman v.
Edwards, 825 N.W.2d 8, 14 (Iowa 2012)).
importantly, "our fundamental concern" in review of
termination of parental right proceedings "is the
child's best interests." In re J.C., 857
N.W.2d 495, 500 (Iowa 2014).
cornerstone of the analysis of the issue presented in this
case is due process of law. See U.S. Const. amend.
XIV, § 1; Iowa Const. art. I, § 9. The protections
provided people under the constitutional guarantee of due
process are fundamental to society. These protections include
procedural safeguards for people who face state action that
threatens a protected liberty or property interest.
Bowers v. Polk Cty. Bd. of Supervisors, 638 N.W.2d
682, 690 (Iowa 2002). Once the law finds a protected interest
to exist, the question turns to what process or procedure the
law must provide the person. In re C.M., 652 N.W.2d
204, 212 (Iowa 2002). Generally, three competing interests
have shaped the contours of this protection.
First, the private interest . . . affected by the
[proceeding]; second, the risk of an erroneous deprivation of
such interest through the procedures used, and the probable
value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural
safeguards; and [third, ] the Government's interest,
including the function involved and the fiscal and
administrative burdens that the additional or substitute
procedural requirement would entail.
Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 335, 96 S.Ct.
893, 903 (1976); see In re C.M., 652 N.W.2d at 212.
These factors identify the interests and concerns involved
and draw upon evidence and analysis to give a specific
meaning to due process.
said that parental termination hearings involve state action
that threatens to deprive parents of their liberty interests
in the care, custody, and control of their children. In
re C.M., 652 N.W.2d at 211. Thus, the broad issue we
address in this appeal turns on how much process is due to
incarcerated parents who face a hearing to terminate their
due process plays a significant role in the overall operation
of our justice system. The way a justice system treats people
who enter it must be as just and fair as the court decisions
made by its judges. This understanding shines greater light
on the critical importance of procedural fairness of a court
system and the need for courts to ensure fairness in the
process of justice itself.
mother in this case asked for due process in the form of a
continuance of the termination hearing or, alternatively, an
opportunity to participate in the hearing by telephone. This
claim illustrates the challenge in achieving procedural due
process. The outcome involves a careful balancing of the
personal interest of litigants, the ability of the court
system to accommodate and provide safeguards for litigants,
and the broad interests of the government to both provide
safeguards and protect the interests of all. The requested
procedure also applies to a final hearing on the merits of
the action. Unlike a hearing on an application for
postconviction relief, the parent has not yet had his or her
day in court. The hearing involves a final adjudication of
the rights at stake.
Continuance of the Hearing.
continuance of a termination hearing until an incarcerated
parent is able to attend may be helpful to the parent, but
the delay that accompanies such continuances may be
detrimental to the best interests of children. See In re
L.L., 459 N.W.2d 489, 495 (Iowa 1990) (indicating
children must not be forced to wait for responsible
parenting). The focus of child welfare in this country, and
Iowa, is now on permanency, and continuances of court
hearings to accommodate parents might offend this goal.
See In re C.B., 611 N.W.2d 489, 493 (Iowa 2000)
(explaining the Adoption and Safe Family Act of 1997
refocused the goals of child welfare cases by its increased
emphasis on children's health and safety and mandate that
children be placed in a permanent home as early ...