M.D. v. K.A., No. 18-0947

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtCADY, Chief Justice.
PartiesIN THE INTEREST OF M.D., K.T., G.A., AND S.A., Minor Children. v. K.A., Mother, Appellant.
Decision Date30 November 2018
Docket NumberNo. 18-0947

IN THE INTEREST OF M.D., K.T., G.A., AND S.A., Minor Children.
K.A., Mother, Appellant.

No. 18-0947


November 30, 2018

On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Ida County, Patrick H. Tott, Judge.

An incarcerated parent appeals an order by juvenile court terminating her parental rights. DECISION OF THE COURT OF APPEALS VACATED; JUVENILE COURT DECISION REVERSED AND REMANDED.

Robert B. Deck of Deck Law PLC, Sioux City, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Kathryn K. Lang, Assistant Attorney General, Meghann Cosgrove-Whitmer, County Attorney, and Kristal L. Phillips, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.

Lesley D. Rynell, Public Defender, Sioux City, guardian ad litem for minor children.

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CADY, Chief Justice.

In this 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 parental rights.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

The 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.1 The children were in the care of their respective fathers at the time of the termination hearing.

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The 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.

The 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.

Counsel 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.

On 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

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claimed was incorrect and was unable to refute due to the limitations on her ability to participate in the hearing.

The 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 hearing.2

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.

II. Scope of Review.

Our 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 (Iowa 2018).

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Moreover, 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)).

Most 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).

III. Analysis.

The 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.

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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.

We have 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 parental rights.

Procedural 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.

The 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.

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A. Continuance of the Hearing. A 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...

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