In a recent case, Adoption of West, the Massachusetts Appeals Court addressed an important issue regarding the termination of parental rights: when and how a parent may assert a claim that the Department of Children and Families (“DCF”) failed to make reasonable efforts towards family reunification.


Case Facts

The case involved a mother of three children. She was born in Puerto Rico, was a native Spanish speaker, and required an English interpreter. DCF first became involved with the family in 2009. At that time, the mother alleged the father of two of her children was abusive. This case was closed. In 2013, someone filed a 51A report alleging neglect of the children at the mother’s apartment. When police arrived at that time, they found signs of violence, including dried blood. Earlier that day, the mother had hit the children’s babysitter in her face with a pistol. This caused the babysitter to suffer an orbital fracture of her eye. As a result, the mother faced charges of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon. The mother was convicted and received an eighteen-month suspended sentence.

DCF took custody of one child, being informed that the other two children might be in New York with their maternal grandfather. The following day, DCF filed a care and protection petition on behalf of all three children. The maternal grandmother then brought the second child to the hospital the next day. He had a broken leg and required surgery. After the hospital released him, DCF placed him in foster care. Later, a family friend returned the third child.


 Family Reunification Attempts

After DCF removed the children, the mother engaged in services. She complied with DCF’s plan to work towards family reunification. In the summer of 2015, DCF reunited the children with their mother. Within a few months, however, the mother stopped engaging in services and began neglecting the children. In September 2015, after one of the children reportedly suffered a burn mark on his back, DCF removed all three children. Again, the department placed them in foster homes.

DCF offered the mother significant mental health services. It also designed service plans to help the mother reach the continued goal of reunification. However, the mother did not fully engage with the services. In March 2016, DCF changed its goal from reunification to adoption.


Trial Court

At trial, the judge found the mother was currently unfit and was likely to continue to be unfit into the indefinite future to a near certitude. The judge also found that it was in the children’s best interests to terminate the parental rights of the mother. Termination of parental rights is a tool at the court’s disposal. The court uses it only after much deliberation and consideration. When this occurs, the court severs a natural parent’s rights to custody and parenting time.


Appeals Court

On appeal, the mother asserted a claim that DCF failed to make reasonable efforts towards family reunification. Primarily, she contended on appeal that DCF did not make sufficient services available to her in Spanish. However, the mother never asserted this specific claim during the course of the proceedings.

“Judges are required to assess the department’s reasonable efforts at various junctures during a case when the department takes or retains custody of children: at emergency custody hearings, at seventy-two hour temporary custody hearings, annually thereafter, and before terminating parental rights,” the Appeals Court explained. The court noted that a judge’s determination that the department made reasonable efforts would not be reversed unless that decision was clearly erroneous.

The Appeals Court pointed out that there are numerous avenues available to a parent who wishes to raise an issue of inadequate services. Those include requesting an administrative fair hearing, bringing up the issue during the pretrial conference, and filing an “abuse of discretion” motion. The mother contended that she raised her claim of inadequate services in a timely manner because she discussed it with her psychological evaluator and raised it in her proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. She claimed that it was a “theme that ran through the life of the case.” However, the court was not persuaded that the mother put the department or the judge on notice of her claim of inadequate services.


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