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When parent “admits” grounds TPR, court can find her unfit without taking testimony

Walworth County DHS v. S.S.K., 2019AP782, 7/17/19, District 2 (1-judge opinion, ineligible for publication); case activity

During the grounds phase of the Walworth County’s TPR case against S.S.K., she “admitted” the ground of continuing CHIPS; she didn’t plead “no contest.”  This distinction proved decisive to the court of appeals’ decision to affirm the termination of her parental rights to her daughter, A.S.L. 

S.S.K. argued that before the circuit court could actually find grounds for terminating her rights to A.S.L. it had to take testimony, pursuant to §48.422(3) and (7). The court of appeals rejected this argument based on Waukesha County v. Steven H., 2000 WI 28, 233 Wis. 2d 344, 607 N.W.2d 607.

¶6 . . . [Section 48.22(3) provides that “[i]f the petition is not contested the court shall hear testimony in support of the allegations in the petition, including testimony as required in sub. (7).” Id. However, this subsection is inapplicable in this case as S.S.K. admitted to the allegations in the petition. See Steven H., 233 Wis. 2d 344, ¶52 (“Deciding not to contest the allegations of the petition is not equivalent to admitting the allegations in a petition.”). Under the facts of this case, where a parent admits the allegations of the petition, the appropriate procedure is found in § 48.422(7), see Steven H., 233 Wis. 2d 344, ¶52, which provides in pertinent part that “[b]efore accepting an admission of the alleged facts in a petition, the court shall” “[m]ake such inquiries as satisfactorily establish that there is a factual basis for the admission,”§ 48.422(7)(c). The plain language of the statute does not require the court to ascertain the factual basis through testimony.

The court of appeals noted that the circuit court had made the required inquiry to establish the factual basis for the admission. Opinion, ¶7.

S.S.K. also argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the circuit court’s finding that termination of her parental rights was in A.L.S.’s best interests. As is often the case, the standard of review worked against S.S.K. on this point. The court of appeals reviews the circuit court’s “best interests of the child” determination for an erroneous exercise of discretion. State v. Margaret H., 2000 WI 42, ¶¶27, 32, 234
Wis. 2d 606, 610 N.W.2d 475. The circuit court applied all six §48.426(3) “best interests” factors to the relevant facts.  S.S.K. simply disagreed with how the circuit court weighed the testimony. Opinion, ¶¶12-13.

 

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