FROM JUDGMENT ENTERED IN THE COURT OF COMMON PLEAS COUNTY OF
WAYNE, OHIO CASE No. 2015-JUV-C-000717
CHRISTINA I. REIHELD, Attorney at Law, for Appellant.
R. LUTZ, Prosecuting Attorney, and MELODY L. BRIAND,
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, for Appellee.
DECISION AND JOURNAL ENTRY
J. CARR, JUDGE
Appellant, Jessica B. ("Mother"), appeals from a
judgment of the Wayne County Court of Common Pleas, Juvenile
Division, that terminated her parental rights to her minor
child, and placed the child in the permanent custody of Wayne
County Children Services ("CSB"). This Court
reverses and remands.
Appellant is the mother of B.Y., born January 13, 2012. The
father of the child was not determined.
On June 23, 2015, CSB filed a dependency complaint regarding
B.Y. based upon allegations of heroin use by Mother. Mother
stipulated to a finding of dependency under R.C. 2151.04(C)
at the adjudication, and she subsequently agreed to a
disposition of temporary custody to CSB. A brief placement
with the maternal grandmother was unsuccessful, and the
agency soon placed B.Y. with a foster family.
The case plan adopted by the trial court required Mother to
address substance abuse, basic needs, recommendations from a
psychological evaluation, and housing. Mother was offered
supervised visits for one-to-two hours weekly. At
Mother's request, her boyfriend was included on the case
plan. He had similar objectives and visitation provisions,
but accomplished little on his case plan.
On May 23, 2016, CSB moved for permanent custody. In that
motion, CSB alleged that the child could not be placed with a
parent within a reasonable time or should not be placed with
a parent, see R.C. 2151.414(B)(1)(a), supported by
allegations under R.C. 2151.414(E)(1), (E)(2), (E)(4), and
(E)(11), along with a second-prong claim that permanent
custody was in the best interest of the child. See
Mother came to court on the day set for the permanent custody
hearing and requested a continuance. She had been served with
notice of the hearing by publication and only saw the motion
for permanent custody that morning. The court did not grant
an immediate continuance, but agreed to continue the hearing
until a second day to allow Mother to present evidence on her
own behalf. CSB presented the bulk of its evidence on the
first day and, after the admission of a stipulated exhibit,
the agency rested its case on the second day.
Thereupon, Mother's attorney announced that Mother would
not call any witnesses, as anticipated, but rather offered a
signed copy of a pre-printed Parental Stipulation to
Permanent Custody form. According to counsel, she did so in
order that "the current foster placement can move
forward with adopting [B.Y.]." The trial judge stated:
"[W]e have already heard from a number of witnesses and
the State has rested at this point. I will go ahead and
accept this form and make it part of the case file but I feel
like at this point I need to rule on the merits of the
case." The trial judge then asked three questions of
Mother: (1) whether she had any questions about the form, (2)
whether she was under the influence of anything at the
present time, and (3) whether anyone had promised her
anything or made threats against her in order to sign the
form, to all of which Mother answered in the negative, adding
only "The paper, I did it for [B.Y.]" The court
heard a brief statement by the guardian ad litem in which she
reiterated her prior recommendation of permanent custody, and
the case was submitted for decision. Thereafter, in the
judgment entry, the trial judge indicated that she accepted
Mother's Stipulation to Permanent Custody, granted
CSB's motion for permanent custody, and terminated the
parental rights of Mother and the unknown father.
In granting CSB's motion for permanent custody, the trial
court found that the child could not be placed with a parent
within a reasonable time or should not be placed with a
parent, R.C. 2151.414(B)(1)(a), and supported it with
findings under R.C. 2151.414(E)(4) and (E)(11). The court
also found that permanent custody was in the best interest of
BY. See R.C. 2151.414(D)(1). At the same time, the
trial court found that CSB had failed to meet its burden of
proof regarding R.C. 2151.414(E)(1) and (E)(2). Mother has
appealed and has assigned two errors for review.
OF ERROR I
TRIAL COURT ERRED BY RELYING UPON A STIPULATION TO PERMANENT
CUSTODY SIGNED BY MOTHER AS THE TRIAL COURT FAILED TO CONDUCT
A FULL INQUIRY CONCERNING THE REPERCUSSIONS OF THAT
In her first assignment of error, Mother claims the trial
court erred in failing to engage in a dialogue with her to
verify that she understood the consequences of a stipulation
to permanent custody, and in relying upon such stipulation
when it granted permanent custody to CSB to terminate her
parental rights. For the reasons set forth below, this Court
sustains this assignment of error.
At the outset, this Court observes that there is no
legislative guidance on the requirements for a voluntary
surrender of parental rights in juvenile court where the
child has been adjudicated neglected or dependent. See In
re Miller 61 Ohio St.2d 184, 189 (1980); Kozak v.
Lutheran Children's Aid Soc, 164 Ohio St. 335,
341-342 (1955). Consequently, this Court looks to decisional
law to address this question.
Parents have a "fundamental liberty interest" in
the care, custody, and management of their children.
Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753 (1982); In
re Murray, 52 Ohio St.3d 155, 157 (1990). The right to
raise one's children is an "essential" and
"basic civil right" that is "far more
precious * * * than property rights[.]" (Internal
quotations and citations omitted.) Stanley v.
Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651 (1972); Meyer v.
Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 399 (1923). This fundamental
liberty interest carries due process protections.
Santosky at 753; In re Shaeffer
Children, 85 Ohio App.3d 683, 689-690 (3d Dist.1993).
For all its consequence, "due process" has never
been, and perhaps can never be, precisely defined. * * *
Rather, [due process] expresses the requirement of
"fundamental fairness, " a requirement whose
meaning can be as opaque as its importance is lofty. Applying
the Due Process Clause is therefore an uncertain enterprise
which must discover what "fundamental fairness"
consists of in a particular situation by first considering
any relevant precedents and then by assessing the several
interests that are at stake.
Lassiter v. Dept. of Social Servs. of Durham Cty., North
Carolina, 452 U.S. 18, 24-25, (1981).
Since parents have constitutionally protected custodial
rights, any action by the state that affects these parental
rights must be conducted pursuant to procedures that are
fundamentally fair. Santosky, 455 U.S. at 753-754;
In re Adoption of Mays,30 Ohio App.3d 195, 198 (1st
Dist.1986). In construing "fundamental fairness" in
the context of a parental rights termination proceeding, this
Court notes that it has been said that parents
"'must be afforded every procedural and substantive
protection the law allows[, ]'" In re
Hayes,79 Ohio St.3d 46, 48 (1997) quoting In re
Smith,77 Ohio App.3d 1, 16 (6th Dist.1991), and the
termination of parental rights should only be used as a
"last resort." In re Cunningham, 59 Ohio
St.2d 100, 105 (1979). This is because when the State
initiates a parental rights termination proceeding, "the
State has sought not simply to infringe upon that interest
but to end it. If the State prevails, it will have worked ...