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TPR – Plea to Grounds

Brown County Dept. of Human Services v. Brenda B., 2011 WI 6, affirming unpublished decision; for Brenda B.: Leonard D. Kachinsky; case activity

¶3   Given that a finding of parental unfitness does not necessarily result in an involuntary termination of parental rights, we determine that the circuit court was not obligated to inform Brenda that by pleading no contest she was waiving her constitutional right to parent.  We additionally determine that the court need not explain that the right to parent is a constitutional right.  What is important is that the parent understands the import of the rights at stake rather than the sources from which they are derived.

¶4   We further conclude that the parent must be informed of the two independent dispositions available to the circuit court.   That is, that the court may decide between dismissing the petition and terminating parental rights.

¶5   Finally, we determine that the colloquy in this case fulfilled the requirements set forth above and that Brenda has failed to present a prima facie case that her plea was not entered knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently.  Accordingly, we affirm the court of appeals.

Detailed discussion follows as to “the nature of parental rights as well as the procedures by which” those rights may be terminated: an efficient  if, as might be imagined, non-novel summary, ¶¶28-33. The court also embellishes the holdings above, the following points perhaps being of interest:

  • “(T)he parent’s interest in the parent-child relationship is most jealously protected” during the first, or grounds, phase, ¶34.
  • Bangert (and due process) principles apply to safeguard first-pahase interests, ¶35.
  • Because a trial court retains discretion not to terminate parental rights in the 2nd phase, there is no obligation to inform the parent that acceptance of a plea to grounds would automatically result in loss of parental rights, ¶40, citing with approval, Dane County D.H.S. v. James M., Nos. 2009AP2038 & 2009AP2039.
  • A parent must nonetheless be informed that acceptance of a plea will result in: loss of “procedural trial rights”;  a finding of parental unfitness; and possible termination of rights, based solely on best interests analysis, ¶¶41-44, citing with approval Oneida County D.S.S. v. Therese S., 2008 WI App. 159, ¶7, 314 Wis. 2d 493, 762 N.W.2d 122.
  • Although a TPR court must inform the parent of the “full range of dispositions,” that doesn’t mean detailing “all potential outcomes”; it means, rather, informing the parent of “two independent dispositions,” dismissal of the petition and terminating rights, ¶¶47-56, again citing Therese S. with approval. (Nonetheless, a TPR court may, in a given case where appropriate, “inform the parent of possible alternatives for designating custody, guardianship, and care of the child,” ¶56 n. 12.
  • On the facts at hand, Brenda was provided adequate notice of the information required for a knowing and voluntary plea to grounds, ¶¶57-64.
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