Santosky v. Kramer, No. 80-5889

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBLACKMUN
Citation71 L.Ed.2d 599,455 U.S. 745,102 S.Ct. 1388
PartiesJohn SANTOSKY II and Annie Santosky, Petitioners v. Bernhardt S. KRAMER, Commissioner, Ulster County Department of Social Services, et al
Decision Date24 March 1982
Docket NumberNo. 80-5889

455 U.S. 745
102 S.Ct. 1388
71 L.Ed.2d 599
John SANTOSKY II and Annie Santosky, Petitioners

v.

Bernhardt S. KRAMER, Commissioner, Ulster County Department of Social Services, et al.

No. 80-5889.
Argued Nov. 10, 1981.
Decided March 24, 1982.
Syllabus

Under New York law, the State may terminate, over parental objection, the rights of parents in their natural child upon a finding that the child is "permanently neglected." The New York Family Court Act (§ 622) requires that only a "fair preponderance of the evidence" support that finding. Neglect proceedings were brought in Family Court to terminate petitioners' rights as natural parents in their three children. Rejecting petitioners' challenge to the constitutionality of § 622's "fair preponderance of the evidence" standard, the Family Court weighed the evidence under that standard and found permanent neglect. After a subsequent dispositional hearing, the Family Court ruled that the best interests of the children required permanent termination of petitioners' custody. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court affirmed, and the New York Court of Appeals dismissed petitioners' appeal to that court.

Held:

1. Process is constitutionally due a natural parent at a state-initiated parental rights termination proceeding. Pp. 752-757.

(a) The fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody, and management of their child is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, and does not evaporate simply because they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody of their child to the State. A parental rights termination proceeding interferes with that fundamental liberty interest. When the State moves to destroy weakened familial bonds, it must provide the parents with fundamentally fair procedures. Pp. 752-754.

(b) The nature of the process due in parental rights termination proceedings turns on a balancing of three factors: the private interests affected by the proceedings; the risk of error created by the State's chosen procedure; and the countervailing governmental interest supporting use of the challenged procedure. Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 335, 96 S.Ct. 893, 903, 47 L.Ed.2d 18. In any given proceeding, the minimum standard of proof tolerated by the due process requirement reflects not only the weight of the public and

Page 746

private interests affected, but also a societal judgment about how the risk of error should be distributed between the litigants. The minimum standard is a question of federal law which this Court may resolve. Retrospective case-by-case review cannot preserve fundamental fairness when a class of proceedings is governed by a constitutionally defective evidentiary standard. Pp. 754-757.

2. The "fair preponderance of the evidence" standard prescribed by § 622 violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 758-768.

(a) The balance of private interests affected weighs heavily against use of such a standard in parental rights termination proceedings, since the private interest affected is commanding and the threatened loss is permanent. Once affirmed on appeal, a New York decision terminating parental rights is final and irrevocable. Pp. 758-761.

(b) A preponderance standard does not fairly allocate the risk of an erroneous factfinding between the State and the natural parents. In parental rights termination proceedings, which bear many of the indicia of a criminal trial, numerous factors combine to magnify the risk of erroneous factfinding. Coupled with the preponderance standard, these factors create a significant prospect of erroneous termination of parental rights. A standard of proof that allocates the risk of error nearly equally between an erroneous failure to terminate, which leaves the child in an uneasy status quo, and an erroneous termination, which unnecessarily destroys the natural family, does not reflect properly the relative severity of these two outcomes. Pp. 761-766.

(c) A standard of proof more strict than preponderance of the evidence is consistent with the two state interests at stake in parental rights termination proceedings—a parens patriae interest in preserving and promoting the child's welfare and a fiscal and administrative interest in reducing the cost and burden of such proceedings. Pp. 766-768.

3. Before a State may sever completely and irrevocably the rights of parents in their natural child, due process requires that the State support its allegations by at least clear and convincing evidence. A "clear and convincing evidence" standard adequately conveys to the factfinder the level of subjective certainty about his factual conclusions necessary to satisfy due process. Determination of the precise burden equal to or greater than that standard is a matter of state law properly left to state legislatures and state courts. Pp. 768-770.

75 App.Div.2d 910, 427 N.Y.S.2d 319, vacated and remanded.

Page 747

Martin Guggenheim, New York City, for petitioners.

Stephen Scavuzzo, Washington, D. C., for respondents, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under New York law, the State may terminate, over parental objection, the rights of parents in their natural child upon a finding that the child is "permanently neglected." N.Y.Soc.Serv.Law §§ 384-b.4.(d), 384-b.7.(a) (McKinney Supp.1981-1982) (Soc.Serv.Law). The New York Family Court Act § 622 (McKinney 1975 and Supp.1981-1982) (Fam.Ct.Act) requires that only a "fair preponderance of the evidence" support that finding. Thus, in New York, the factual certainty required to extinguish the parent-child relationship is no greater than that necessary to award money damages in an ordinary civil action.

Today we hold that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment demands more than this. Before a State may sever completely and irrevocably the rights of parents in

Page 748

their natural child, due process requires that the State support its allegations by at least clear and convincing evidence.

I
A.

New York authorizes its officials to remove a child temporarily from his or her home if the child appears "neglected," within the meaning of Art. 10 of the Family Court Act. See §§ 1012(f), 1021-1029. Once removed, a child under the age of 18 customarily is placed "in the care of an authorized agency," Soc.Serv.Law § 384-b.7.(a), usually a state institution or a foster home. At that point, "the state's first obligation is to help the family with services to . . . reunite it. . . ." § 384-b.1.(a)(iii). But if convinced that "positive, nurturing parent-child relationships no longer exist," § 384-b.1.(b), the State may initiate "permanent neglect" proceedings to free the child for adoption.

The State bifurcates its permanent neglect proceeding into "fact-finding" and "dispositional" hearings. Fam.Ct.Act §§ 622, 623. At the factfinding stage, the State must prove that the child has been "permanently neglected," as defined by Fam.Ct.Act §§ 614.1.(a)-(d) and Soc.Serv.Law § 384-b.7.(a). See Fam.Ct.Act § 622. The Family Court judge then determines at a subsequent dispositional hearing what placement would serve the child's best interests. §§ 623, 631.

At the factfinding hearing, the State must establish, among other things, that for more than a year after the child entered state custody, the agency "made diligent efforts to encourage and strengthen the parental relationship." Fam.Ct.Act §§ 614.1.(c), 611. The State must further prove that during that same period, the child's natural parents failed "substantially and continuously or repeatedly to maintain contact with or plan for the future of the child although physically and financially able to do so." § 614.1(d). Should the State support its allegations by "a fair preponderance of the evidence," § 622, the child may be declared permanently ne-

Page 749

glected. § 611. That declaration empowers the Family Court judge to terminate permanently the natural parents' rights in the child. §§ 631(c), 634. Termination denies the natural parents physical custody, as well as the rights ever to visit, communicate with, or regain custody of the child.1

New York's permanent neglect statute provides natural parents with certain procedural protections.2 But New York permits its officials to establish "permanent neglect" with less proof than most States require. Thirty-five States, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands currently specify a higher standard of proof, in parental rights termination proceedings, than a "fair preponderance of the evidence." 3 The only analogous federal statute of which we are aware

Page 750

permits termination of parental rights solely upon "evidence beyond a reasonable doubt." Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, Pub.L. 95-608, § 102(f), 92 Stat. 3072, 25 U.S.C. § 1912(f) (1976 ed., Supp.IV). The question here is whether

Page 751

New York's "fair preponderance of the evidence" standard is constitutionally sufficient.

B

Petitioners John Santosky II and Annie Santosky are the natural parents of Tina and John III. In November 1973, after incidents reflecting parental neglect, respondent Kramer, Commissioner of the Ulster County Department of Social Services, initiated a neglect proceeding under Fam.Ct.Act § 1022 and removed Tina from her natural home. About 10 months later, he removed John III and placed him with foster parents. On the day John was taken, Annie Santosky gave birth to a third child, Jed. When Jed was only three days old, respondent transferred him to a foster home on the ground that immediate removal was necessary to avoid imminent danger to his life or health.

In October 1978, respondent petitioned the Ulster County Family Court to terminate petitioners' parental rights in the three children.4 Petitioners challenged the constitutionality of the "fair preponderance of the evidence" standard specified in Fam.Ct.Act § 622....

To continue reading

Request your trial
8261 practice notes
  • Doe v. Heck, No. 01-3648.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • April 16, 2003
    ...32 L.Ed.2d 15 (1972). Equally fundamental is the right of a child to be raised and nurtured by his parents.23 Santosky, 455 U.S. at 760, 102 S.Ct. 1388 (noting that "until the state proves parental unfitness, the child and his parents share a vital interest in preventing erroneous terminati......
  • Ahmad v. Wigen, No. 89-CV-715.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York
    • September 26, 1989
    ...is the appropriate burden level. This is a civil case and the preponderance standard is the norm in such cases. See Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 755, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 1395, 71 L.Ed.2d 599 (1982); Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418, 423-25, 99 S.Ct. 1804, 1807-09, 60 L.Ed.2d 323 (1979); In......
  • Suboh v. City of Revere, Mass., No. CIV.A. 00-10396-WGY.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts
    • March 30, 2001
    ...434 U.S. 246, 98 S.Ct. 549, 54 L.Ed.2d 511 [1978]; Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584, 99 S.Ct. 2493, 61 L.Ed.2d 101 [1979]; Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 71 L.Ed.2d 599 [1982]; Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 117 S.Ct. 2258, 138 L.Ed.2d 772 [1997]). The substantive du......
  • Beharry v. Reno, No. 98 CV 5381(JBW).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • January 22, 2002
    ...the right to live with one's family and control one's children without unnecessary government interference. See, e.g., Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 71 L.Ed.2d 599 (1982) (parental right to guide children's upbringing); Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494, 97 S.Ct. 193......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
8309 cases
  • Doe v. Heck, No. 01-3648.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • April 16, 2003
    ...32 L.Ed.2d 15 (1972). Equally fundamental is the right of a child to be raised and nurtured by his parents.23 Santosky, 455 U.S. at 760, 102 S.Ct. 1388 (noting that "until the state proves parental unfitness, the child and his parents share a vital interest in preventing erroneous terminati......
  • Ahmad v. Wigen, No. 89-CV-715.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York
    • September 26, 1989
    ...is the appropriate burden level. This is a civil case and the preponderance standard is the norm in such cases. See Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 755, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 1395, 71 L.Ed.2d 599 (1982); Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418, 423-25, 99 S.Ct. 1804, 1807-09, 60 L.Ed.2d 323 (1979); In......
  • Suboh v. City of Revere, Mass., No. CIV.A. 00-10396-WGY.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts
    • March 30, 2001
    ...434 U.S. 246, 98 S.Ct. 549, 54 L.Ed.2d 511 [1978]; Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584, 99 S.Ct. 2493, 61 L.Ed.2d 101 [1979]; Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 71 L.Ed.2d 599 [1982]; Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 117 S.Ct. 2258, 138 L.Ed.2d 772 [1997]). The substantive du......
  • Beharry v. Reno, No. 98 CV 5381(JBW).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • January 22, 2002
    ...the right to live with one's family and control one's children without unnecessary government interference. See, e.g., Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 71 L.Ed.2d 599 (1982) (parental right to guide children's upbringing); Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494, 97 S.Ct. 193......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
5 books & journal articles
  • THE BURDENS OF THE EXCESSIVE FINES CLAUSE.
    • United States
    • William and Mary Law Review Vol. 63 Nbr. 2, November 2021
    • November 1, 2021
    ...2021), http://hopepolicy.org/manage/wp-content/uploads/Criminal-Justice-Paper.pdf [https://perma.cc/J52T-DHEU]. (193.) Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 747-48 (194.) Id. at 756-59 (noting that proceedings that threaten a "stigma" require greater protection); Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 41......
  • The “Family Relations” Doctrine: Extending Supreme Court Precedent to Custody Disputes Between Biological and Nonbiological Parents*
    • United States
    • Family Relations Nbr. 51-4, October 2002
    • October 1, 2002
    ...the natural parent preference in custodydisputes be in everyone’s best interest? Journal of Family Law, 29, 539–548.Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745 (1982).Simons, R. L., Whitbeck, L. B., Beaman, J., & Conger, R. D. (1994). Theimpactof mothers’ parenting, involvement by nonresidential fathe......
  • Ratification by the United States of the Convention on the Rights of the Child: Pros and Cons from a Child’s Rights Perspective
    • United States
    • ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, The Nbr. 633-1, January 2011
    • January 1, 2011
    ...on the Rights of the Child. Cleveland State Law Review 42:675–703.Roper v. Simmons. 2005. 543 U.S. 551.Santosky v. Kramer. 1982. 455 U.S. 745.Shepherd, Robert E., Jr. 1990. Civil rights of the child. In Children’s rights in America, eds. Cynthia Price Cohen and Howard A. Davidson, 135–47. C......
  • When Home Is Still Unsafe: From Family Reunification to Foster Care Reentry
    • United States
    • Journal of Marriage and Family Nbr. 80-5, October 2018
    • October 1, 2018
    ...modeling. Childrenand Youth Services Review,33, 705–714.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2010.11.010Santosky v. Kramer. (1982). No. 455 U.S. 745 (U.S.Supreme Court 1982).Stensland, M., Watson, P. R., & Grazier, K. L.(2012). An examination of costs, charges,and payments for inpatient psy......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT