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Initials, acronyms garble court of appeals opinion in termination of parental rights case

State v. M.K., 2017AP1952-1953, 12/27/17, District 1 (1-judge opinion, ineligible for publication); case activity

The record for a termination of rights appeal is required by law to be confidential. Thus, in such a case the court of appeals must refer to the individuals involved by their initials, pseudonyms, or other appropriate designations. This rule balances the individual’s right to confidentiality with the public’s right to know how our judges are applying and developing the law. Nobody disputes the wisdom of the rule. On Point questions its application in this particular appeal.

Consider the opening paragraph of the opinion’s “background” section:

¶2 M.K. is the biological mother of B.A., born February 21, 2013, and L.K., born March 2, 2014. The children’s great-grandmother, D.K., had filed for temporary guardianship of L.K. and J.K.,3 M.K.’s other child, in August 2014. D.K. took this action after M.K. had gone to California with A.A., the biological father of both B.A. and L.K. D.K. subsequently followed M.K. to California to retrieve and care for the children after M.K. and A.A. broke up. L.K. and J.K. were placed with D.K., while B.A. remained with his mother.

The frequent use of acronyms such as BMCW, CHIPS, TPR, THC, AODA over the next 5 pages of this slim opinion certainly did not help matters. The only named individual is “Jack,” M.K.’s friend, who makes a cameo appearance in ¶4 and seems irrelevant to the result.

While the “background” is very difficult to follow, the opinion’s short “discussion” of the law is not. M.K., the mother, argued that the circuit court did not adequately address the “best interests of her children or the substantial relationships between her children and their birth family members. The court of appeals disagreed:

¶16 Although the trial court may not have explicitly cited in its written decision the standard and all of the factors of WIS. STAT. § 48.426(2) and (3), we find that the court sufficiently considered them. In the first place, the trial court’s discussion relating to the dangerous environment the children were exposed to while in the custody of M.K., and the “necessary protective measure” of removing them, was clearly a reference to the standard regarding the children’s best interests, in accordance with WIS. STAT. § 48.426(2).

¶21 The trial court concluded that the actions of the children’s parents and grandmother had triggered their placement in foster care, resulting in the children’s relationships with their foster family “becoming the foundational relationships in the children’s lives.” Under these circumstances, the court found that “the children’s relationship to their birth family [had] becom[e] highly attenuated.”

¶22 In sum, the court found that “there is no credible evidence suggestive that any of the other negative influences in [the parents’] lives have been ameliorated.” It therefore determined that, after weighing the dangers the children faced when living with their parents, particularly in comparison to the “safety, stability, nurturance, love and support” that they receive at their foster home, granting the TPR was in the children’s best interests.

¶23 We find that the trial court applied the correct standard of law to the facts of this case, and thus properly exercised its discretion in granting this TPR. See Margaret H., 234 Wis. 2d 606, ¶32. We therefore affirm.

In most cases, the use of initials and acronyms will not produce the mess that occurred here. But when an opinion involves at least 7 people who are entitled to confidentiality some effort might be made (perhaps initiated by the parties in their briefs) to render the matter readable. In this case, using pseudonyms and the term “the Bureau” instead of “BMCW” 12 times might have helped. Ironically, a few years ago this district court of appeals criticized parties to an appeal for excessive use of acronyms and initials because it made their briefs difficult to comprehend. See Anthony Gagliano & Co., Inc. v. Openfirst, LLC, 2013 WI App 19, ¶5 n.2, 346 Wis. 2d 47, 828 N.W.2d 268.

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