The court of appeals affirmed the circuit court’s decision to terminate Ralph B.’s parental rights because Manitowoc County met its burden of proving a failure to assume parental responsibility and because trial counsel had sound strategic reasons for not pursuing various lines of defense during the grounds phase of Ralph’s trial.
In order to establish a failure to assume parental responsibility for his daughter, Anna, the County had to show that Ralph failed the “substantial parental relationship” test set forth in §48.415(6)(b). The court of appeals held that Ralph failed the test because the record contained credible evidence that he abused Anna’s mother while she was pregnant, spent very little time directly caring for Anna, said that he did not “do crying babies”, threatened to harm Anna’s mother’s family, physically harmed Anna while he was caring for her, dissuaded Anna’s mother from taking the injured Anna to the hospital, attempted suicide, and was imprisoned for harming Anna. Slip op. ¶20.
The court of appeals further held that Ralph’s trial counsel was not ineffective. Ralph thought his lawyer should not have told the jury the length of his incarceration. But his lawyer explained that he wanted the jurors to understand that Ralph would be released in a few years rather than allow them to speculate that his sentence might be longer. That strategy was deemed reasonable. Slip op. ¶26.
Ralph argued that his trial lawyer failed to properly present evidence to challenge the County’s allegations that he failed to inquire about Anna or her future. Ralph believed that he was legally prohibited from communicating with others about Anna. According to the court of appeals, trial counsel made a reasonable strategic decision on this point too–pursuing that defense would have risked waiving Ralph’s privilege with his CHIPS attorney. Slip op. ¶32.
Ralph also criticized his trial counsel for failing to ask the court to instruct the jurors that they may not consider the “best interests of the child” during the grounds phase of a TPR trial. Trial counsel testified that he did not request such an instruction because doing so would actually encourage the jurors to think about Anna’s best interests. The court of appeals found this strategy reasonable too. Slip op. ¶38.