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In re M.A.S.C.: A Framework for Assessing Whether to Terminate Parental Rights of an “Intellectually Disabled” Parent

Posted on June 28, 2021 by Will Reingold

The decision to sever a child’s relations with his or her natural parent is not to be taken lightly.  It has been said that “[a]n order terminating parental rights deprives children of their right to financial support, their right to companionship and guidance, their right of inheritance, and their right to Social Security benefits in the event of that parent’s death or disability.”  But, as the Supreme Court of the United States recognized in the 1978 case of Bellotti v. Baird, there are “three reasons justifying the conclusion that the constitutional rights of children cannot be equated with those of adults: the peculiar vulnerability of children; their inability to make critical decisions in an informed, mature manner; and the importance of the parental role in child rearing.”

Every case terminating parental rights is unique, and can present tricky questions unique to that particular case.  One thorny situation arises where the parent in question has an intellectual disability that adversely affects his or her ability to comply with reunification efforts after the child has been removed from the home.  In a decision handed down on May 20, 2021, the Washington Supreme Court squarely addressed this very issue.

In the case of In re M.A.S.C., the young child (referred to by the pseudonym M.A.S.C.) first drew the attention of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (“DCYF”) when DCYF learned that the family was living in a “small, ‘cluttered’ recreational vehicle with ‘limited basic utilities.’”  Without delving into the granular details of the case, DCYF removed M.A.S.C. from the home, a case worker was assigned to the case, and DCYF eventually gave up on reunifying the mother with M.A.S.C. and petitioned to terminate the mother’s parental rights.  Notably, the mother was found to have an “intellectual disability.”  The caseworker purportedly made efforts to communicate with the mother so that she could understand what the court expected of her should she want to reunify with M.A.S.C.  However, after a two-day bench trial, the judge stated that the social worker “made every attempt reasonable to ensure the mother had access to services” and “was always available to answer questions about the service plan and frequently did so.”  The judge therefore concluded that DCYF “established by clear, cogent and convincing evidence” — the applicable legal burden of proof for these cases — “that termination was in M.A.S.C.’s best interests,” and accordingly terminated the mother’s parental rights.

The Washington Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the order terminating the mother’s parental rights. In doing so, the Supreme Court set forth a step-by-step analysis for how to handle situations where the parent has an intellectual disability.

The Supreme Court began by establishing a legal foundation for its analysis.  The applicable statute on this issue (RCW 13.34.180(d)(d)) provides that DCYF must prove that all court-ordered and necessary services are “expressly and understandably offered or provided” to the parent.  When the parent in question has an intellectual disability, this statutory language must be measured against an objective standard based on current professional guidelines.  Against this backdrop, DCYF and the trial judge must evaluate the situation as follows:

  1. If DCYF suspects a parent has an intellectual disability, “it must make reasonable efforts to ascertain the extent of the disability and how it could interfere with the parent’s ability to understand and benefit from DCYF’s offer of services.”
  2. If, after “reasonable efforts” indicate that there is an intellectual disability, “then DCYF must tailor its offer of services to ensure that the offer is reasonably understandable to the parent,” which must be informed by current professional guidelines “and must accommodate the individual parent’s need rather than relying on broad-based or untested assumptions about the needs and abilities of people with disabilities.”
  3. If reunification efforts prove unsuccessful and a termination trial is called for, “then the trial court’s role in evaluating whether DCYF has understandably offered to the parent is to apply a consistent, objective standard that accounts for the individual circumstances of each case.” In other words, “the trial court must place itself in the position of an objective observer who is aware of the nature and extent of the parent’s intellectual disability, as well as current professional guidelines for communicating with people who have similar disabilities.”  This determination by the judge is based on the “totality of the circumstances” for that case.

The Washington Supreme Court then applied this tripartite analytical framework to M.A.S.C.’s case, and ultimately concluded that “there [w]as not substantial evidence in the record to support the trial court’s finding that DCYF fulfilled its duty to understandably offer [the mother] all necessary and court-ordered services.”  In closing, the Court observed that “[w]hile every parent facing termination is entitled to understandable offers of services to remedy their parental deficiencies, parents with intellectual disabilities may require accommodations that other parents may not.”

One final point of emphasis: the Court’s use of the words “intellectual disability” was deliberate and meant to be distinguishable from “developmental disabilities” and “mental illness.”  Citing an online source, the Court defined an “intellectual disability” as one “refer[ing] to a condition that begins before age 18, persists throughout the person’s life, and causes “significant limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills.”  By contrast, “developmental disabilities” is a “broader term that includes intellectual disabilities as well as other conditions that do not affect intellectual functioning,” and mental illness is distinct from both intellectual and developmental disabilities; however, the Court noted that “the principles we set forth in this opinion may apply in other cases where mental illness or other forms of parental disabilities are at issue.”  Perhaps a future case will elucidate how this step-by-step analysis applies to a parent suffering from a mental illness.

The divorce and child custody process is complex and unique to each case, but a focus on creative alternatives can help you reach a peaceful resolution. The family law attorneys at Lasher Holzapfel Sperry & Ebberson are available to guide you through the process.