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Admission in TPR case was valid

State v. C.S.S., 2017AP1138, 2017AP1139, 2017AP1140, & 2017AP1141, District 1, 3/6/18 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity

C.S.S. entered an admission to a TPR petition alleging her four children were in continuing need of protection and services. The court of appeals rejects her argument that she should be able to withdraw that admission because the judge misinformed her about the burden of proof at the disposition phase when it said the state had to prove by clear and convincing evidence that it would be in the children’s best interest to terminate her parental rights.

¶14     Our independent review of the record shows that C.S.S. unquestionably entered her plea knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently. The circuit court engaged in a thorough colloquy with C.S.S. in which the circuit court: explained the rights C.S.S. was giving up, obtained assurance from C.S.S. that she understood those rights, inquired about C.S.S.’s level of understanding, questioned C.S.S. about her knowledge of jury trials, and confirmed that counsel explained the consequences of the plea. The circuit court explained that if C.S.S. pled no contest to grounds, the court would find her unfit as required by statute and that at the disposition hearing, the court would determine whether her parental rights should be terminated based on what was in the children’s best interest. The court determined that based on C.S.S.’s age, level of education, communication with her counsel, and her responses to the court’s questions that she was freely entering a plea of no contest. This was sufficient. See, e.g., Brown Cty. DHS v. Brenda B., 2011 WI 6, ¶¶43-44, 331 Wis. 2d 310, 795 N.W.2d 730 ….

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¶16      Moreover, the circuit court’s comments about the burden of proof at the disposition hearing are irrelevant. As the State points out, there does not appear to be a statutory allocation of the burden of proof or a specific designation of the level of the burden of proof at disposition. The rules of evidence are not binding at disposition, see Wis. Stat. § 48.299(4)(b), and the circuit court is to admit all evidence having probative value. Id. Any party can submit evidence from which the court must make a discretionary determination as to what is in the best interest of the children. See id.[;] Wis. Stat. § 48.426; Sheboygan Cty. DHHS v. Julie A.B., 2002 WI 95, ¶29, 255 Wis. 2d 170, 648 N.W.2d 402….

¶17     Here, the court gave C.S.S. a detailed explanation of the disposition hearing and thoroughly described C.S.S.’s rights at the hearing. The court explained the potential outcomes and unequivocally stated that its primary consideration at disposition was the best interest of the children. See Brenda B., 331 Wis. 2d 310, ¶44. Indeed, the court twice informed C.S.S. that the “controlling factor” at disposition would be the best interest of her children. ….

C.S.S. also testified at the postdisposition hearing that she other reasons to avoid a trial on the grounds allegations and evidenced continuing confusion about the burdens of proof, “making it highly unlikely that her understanding of burdens of proof had anything to do with her decision to plead no contest.” (¶¶8, 15).

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