Competency: No violation of due process in conducting TPR trial against incompetent parent

A.M. v. Department of Children and Families, 2017WL3085350 (Fla. 4th DCA)

In this appeal of an order terminating mother’s parental rights, the Fourth DCA extended its previous holding that conducting a dependency adjudication against an incompetent parent does not violate due process, to a termination trial where the mother’s mental health was the core issue and there was no assurance she would regain competence.

The DCA found that in termination of parental rights cases, the child’s interests in stability and safety must be considered in addition to the parent’s fundamental right in raising his or her child. The risk of error in conducting a TPR trial against an incompetent parent is diminished because the parent has a right to counsel (unlike most other civil cases) and there is a heightened burden of proof. The government has not only a fiscal/administrative interest but also a parens patriae interest in preserving and promoting the child’s welfare.

The Court declined to analogize TPR to criminal cases, noting TPR does not involve a deprivation of physical liberty, and TPR has different procedures and goals from criminal cases. The government’s interest in finality is greater in TPR cases than in criminal cases, because of the harm to a child when permanency is unduly delayed. Aligning itself with the majority of jurisdictions, the Court held due process does not require a parent to be competent at the time of a termination proceeding.

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