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Jackson v. Division of Family Services

Supreme Court of Delaware

March 29, 2018

MATTHEW J. JACKSON, SR., Respondent Below, Appellant,
DIVISION OF FAMILY SERVICES, Petitioner Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: February 14, 2018

          Court Below-Family Court of the State of Delaware File No. 17-01-1TK Petition No. 17-00543

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VAUGHN and TRAYNOR, Justices.


          Gary F. Traynor Justice

         This 29th day of March 2018, upon consideration of the parties' briefs and the record on appeal, it appears that:

         (1) Matthew Jackson[1] has appealed the Family Court's June 28, 2017 Order terminating his parental rights over his minor child. On appeal, Jackson claims that no statutory basis for termination exists, [2] and that termination is not in the child's best interests. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

         (2) On November 19, 2015, Jackson returned home from work to find his three-month-old child soaking wet with urine, and the child's mother ("Mother")"drunk and passed out."[3] Jackson woke up Mother, and an argument ensued. After law enforcement arrived, Mother was arrested for a crime of domestic violence against Jackson, and the Division of Family Services ("DFS") took emergency custody of the child.

         (3) On November 30, 2015, the Family Court determined that probable cause existed for the child to remain in DFS custody. DFS eventually arranged for foster care, to which the child readily adapted. As a result, DFS filed a Motion to be Excused from Case Planning, seeking to forgo reunification services under 13 Del. C. § 1103(d). The Family Court granted DFS's motion on June 14, 2016.

         (4) On May 16, 2017, DFS filed a Petition for Termination of Parental Rights against both Jackson and Mother. The Family Court held a hearing on May 16, 2017. Mother did not appear. After hearing testimony from Jackson and several family-services employees, and after reviewing social reports, prior Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights Orders against Jackson and Mother, and certified criminal histories, the Family Court granted DFS's termination-of-parental-rights petition as to both Jackson and Mother.

         (5) This Court's review of a Family Court decision includes both the facts and the law.[4] We review conclusions of law de novo.[5] Factual findings will not be disturbed unless clearly erroneous and unsupported by the record.[6] If the Family Court correctly applied the pertinent law, we review for an abuse of discretion.[7]

         (6) In reviewing a termination-of-parental-rights petition, the Family Court must employ a two-step analysis.[8] First, there must be clear and convincing proof that a statutory basis for termination as set forth in 13 Del. C. § 1103(a) exists. Second, there must be a determination-again, by clear and convincing evidence- that termination is in the best interest of the child.[9]

         (7) In this case, the Family Court found three statutory bases for termination: (i) failure to adequately plan;[10] (ii) a felony offense against a child;[11]and (iii) previous involuntary termination of parental rights.[12] Jackson challenges each.

         (8) The Family Court concluded that DFS proved by clear and convincing evidence the statutory ground for termination set forth in 13 Del C. § 1103(a)(5)- failure to plan for the child's physical needs or the mental and emotional health and development of the child. Jackson claims that this failure-to-plan finding was clearly erroneous pointing to evidence that he had made plans for reunification, identified daycare facilities close to his home, requested that DFS reconsider their decision not to plan for reunification, and owned a business that provided sufficient financial security to allow him to care for the child.

         (9) How the Family Court reached its conclusion that Jackson had failed to plan for the child's needs, health, and development is unclear. As even DFS notes, "the Family Court does not discuss its reasoning at length for this statutory ground."[13] It appears as though the court determined that the combination of (i) the rebuttable presumption that sex offenders shall not be awarded child custody under 13 Del. C. §724A and (ii) the court's June 14, 2006 order excusing DFS under 13 Del. C. § 1103(d) from its obligation to provide reunification and related services, effectively precluded Jackson from planning for the child. But nothing in the termination-of-parental rights statute or the cases construing it supports such a conclusion in the absence of other clear and convincing evidence. To be sure, an unrebutted presumption under 13 Del. C. ยง 724A may be an insurmountable obstacle to an award of custody and an independent ground for termination of parental rights, and the absence of DFS's services might make planning more difficult. But they are not, without more, sufficient to establish a separate statutory basis -under the guise of failure to plan-for the termination of ...

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