G.H. v. Department of Children and Families, 145 So.3d 884 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014)

Father appealed termination of his parental rights.  The child had been sexually abused by her brother during a time period when Father was not residing in the home.  The brother was removed from the home but returned by an agent of the Department of Children and Families (Department) approximately two years later.  The child alleged the brother abused her again a week after the brother’s return.  The brother was charged but acquitted of the second allegations.

The Department sought termination of Father’s parental rights claiming he “engaged in conduct towards the child that demonstrates that the continuing involvement of the parents in the parent-child relationship threatens the life, safety, well-being [sic] or physical, mental, or emotional health of the child.” § 39.806(1)(c), Florida Statutes (2013).

At the termination of parental rights trial, the child’s therapist testified that no contact between the child and her parents was not in the child’s best interest.  The child’s guardian testified that she preferred a permanency goal of guardianship over adoption.  The trial court found that the child had a strong emotional bond to her parents and that permanent separation from her parents would be traumatic.  “The trial court concluded, though, that the harm suffered by the separation would be less than what would occur if the child was returned to them. This conclusion is without support in the record. The child’s therapist testified that it was not in the child’s best interests to have no future exposure to her parents. It was the agent of the Department which placed the brother back in the family home; it was not explained why removal of the brother from the family home will not protect the child victim.”

Termination of parental rights is a fundamental liberty interest that must be obtained in a “narrowly tailored manner.”  The First DCA agreed with Father that termination in this case was not shown to be the least restrictive means of protecting the child.  Even the trial court alluded to this fact in its findings when it found that under appropriate supervision the parents may not be harmful to the child.

The First DCA reversed the  order terminating the parental rights of the father.

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