COA Opinion: In camera interviews are improper to determine best interest of child in parental rights termination
On December 15, 2009, the Court of Appeals published its opinion in In Re Compton Minors, Nos. 290213 & 290214, affirming the trial court’s statutory grounds for terminating the parents’ rights but vacating and remanding the portion of the trial court’s opinion pertaining to its “best interests of the child” determination. The Court of Appeals concluded that a trial court presiding over a juvenile proceeding may not conduct unrecorded in camera interviews of the minor children when considering whether termination is in their best interest.
The respondent parents in this case had a protracted history with protected services. They had been referred to protective services 24 times before the Department of Human Services sought termination of their parental rights, alleging sexual abuse by the father and his adult son, physical abuse by the father, failure to protect against sexual abuse by the mother, and failure by both parents to provide proper education and hygiene.
Under the juvenile code, MCL § 712A.1 et seq., termination of parental rights is appropriate when one or more statutory grounds for termination under MCL § 712A.19b(3) is proven by clear and convincing evidence and termination is in the best interest of the child. After hearing the testimony presented by the parties during trial, the trial court announced that it was not ready to make a best-interest determination but instead desired to conduct in camera interviews of all the children. It did not indicate that the interviews would be limited to any purpose, but that they would be generally used to determine the children’s best interests. Following these in camera interviews, the trial court terminated the respondents’ parental right to all of the children.
The Court found that the trial court’s practice of conducting in camera interviews here was both a plain error of the trial court as well as a violation of respondents’ due-process rights. The trial court erred in applying the Child Custody Act, MCL § 722.21 et seq. (which permits the use of in camera interviews to determine minors’ parental preferences), to this parental-rights matter, which is governed by the juvenile code, MCL § 712A.1. Furthermore, the respondents’ fundamental rights to the care and custody of their children outweighed the state’s interest in utilizing in camera interviews, which carry a high risk of error and little necessity, as the testimony may be obtained another way.
However, the court denied the Respondents’ arguments that one of their minor children was denied effective assistance of counsel, that their due process rights were violated because the state did not pursue reunification efforts, and that the jury failed to follow the trial court’s instructions. Respondents in a child protective proceeding lack standing to challenge the effectiveness of the child’s attorney. Further, reunification efforts by the state were not required in this case as the state was seeking termination of parental rights (and at the time the state was seeking mere temporary custody, respondents waived reunification in their pleas). Finally, the only error that occurred regarding jury instructions was as to who would speak for the jury as foreperson. According to the Court of Appeals, “the misunderstanding was clear and did not warrant further inquiry from the trial court.”