Thursday, June 16, 2011

Alabama Supreme Court Decision Discusses the Best Interests of the Child

While this decision is not a child welfare case, it is exceptionally instructive into the legal principle known as the "bests interests of the child" and the improper application of that standard in the context of the presumption of parental fitness.

In this case, the parents decided that their children should not be permitted to see their grandparents. The grandparents petitioned the court for visitation under an Alabama statute which gives grandparents the right to petition the court for visitation rights with their grandchildren. The trial court granted visitation pursuant to the statute. The appeals court overturned, citing the grandparents did not prove that the children would be harmed by being denied contact with their grandparents. The Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court decision but for different reason.

The Alabama Supreme Court found the statute to be unconstitutional in its entirety.

The law on parental rights is exhaustively discussed in this decision, detailing the lineage of the law from the beginning to the current status of the rights of parents to make decisions regarding their children.

It emphasizes that the law clearly states a parent is presumed fit, and under that presumption, the state cannot even reach a decision regarding the best interests of the child. Because the Alabama grandparent visitation statute ignored the presumption of parental fitness and ignored the fact that the state has no right to second guess a parent's decisions or to substitute stated decisions for the parent's decisions absent a finding of parental unfitness, the statute was found to be unconstitutional.

This principle applies equally to child welfare agencies during a child abuse/neglect investigation and case. If one were to substitute "child welfare agency" for "grandparents," the case would read like a user manual for the proper administration of child welfare cases.

I particularly found the concurring discussion about how the institution of the family predates government to be encouraging. AFAC has been making this argument for nearly twenty years, and it is heartening to see a jurist who gets it.

Ex Parte Erg and Dwg Al

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