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TPR petition gave parent sufficient notice of grounds for termination

N.A.H. v. J.R.D., 2015AP1726, 2015AP1727, and 2015AP1728, District 4, 10/29/15 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity (first case number)

The petition to terminate J.R.D.s parental rights set forth sufficient facts to support the allegation that J.R.D. had failed to assume parental responsibility.

N.A.H. filed a petition seeking to terminate the parental rights of J.R.D., the father of her children, alleging abandonment, continuing CHIPS, and failure to assume parental responsibility. J.R.D. moved to dismiss the petition for failing to allege facts to support termination. The circuit court granted the motion to dismiss the abandonment and continuing CHIPS grounds, but found there were sufficient allegations to go to trial on the failure to assume ground. (¶¶2-5).

The court of appeals agrees the petition was sufficient to give J.R.D. notice of that ground. To be sufficient, the petition has to include a statement of the grounds for termination under § 48.415 and “a statement of the facts and circumstances which the petitioner alleges establish these grounds,” § 48.42(1)(c)2. The petition met this standard:

¶12     The mother alleged the following facts and circumstances to support the alleged ground:

•In 2010, the circuit court reduced the father’s periods of placement and ordered him to comply with certain conditions.

•The circuit court subsequently suspended all periods of placement and, again, ordered the father to comply with certain conditions in order to regain placement with his children.

•As of the date of the petition, the father has failed to comply with those conditions and has not seen or spoken to his children since 2010.

•The father owed over $7,500 in child support.

A fact finder could reasonably infer from the alleged facts that the father has not “expressed concern for or interest in the support, care or well-being of the child” and has “neglected or refused to provide care or support for the child.” See Wis. Stat. § 48.415(6)(b). Therefore, the petition to terminate the father’s parental rights sufficiently alleged facts supporting the failure to assume parental responsibility ground for termination of parental rights under Wis. Stat. § 48.415(6) and, accordingly, satisfied the pleadings requirements under Wis. Stat. § 48.42(1)(c)2….

The court of appeals also rejects J.R.D.’s argument that the circuit court was objectively biased because, when ruling on J.R.D.’s motion to dismiss, the court went through the alleged facts line-by-line and, after asking clarifying questions of the parties, suggested the facts might support an alternative ground for termination, thus demonstrating the court was assisting the petitioner.

¶16     None of this constitutes objective bias. First, it is expected that the circuit court would have read the attached statement of facts “line-by-line” in order to determine whether it sufficiently alleges facts supporting the grounds for termination. Second, there is nothing improper about the circuit court asking the parties clarifying questions. Third, the father’s counsel also had a lengthy exchange with the circuit court spanning several pages of transcript. In sum, the father fails to show that any reasonable person could question the court’s impartiality here, and therefore, the father’s judicial bias argument fails.

The objective bias standard asks whether a reasonable person could question the court’s impartiality based on the court’s statements, State v. Goodson, 2009 WI App 107, ¶9, 320 Wis. 2d 166, 771 N.W.2d 385. The court cites this standard (¶15), but its reasoning—which we quote in full above—conspicuously avoids mentioning, let alone quoting, the circuit court’s apparent suggestion to the petitioner that there’s an alternative ground for termination. That statement would appear to be at the core of J.R.D.’s claim, and its omission from the court of appeals’ reasoning doesn’t give a reader much confidence about the court’s analysis of the claim.

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