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TPR court correctly applied “substantial relationship” standard in dispo phase

State v. M.G., 2018AP835, 10/23/18, District 1 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity

M.G. appeals the termination of his parental rights to his daughter, M.W. He stipulated to unfitness on the ground of failure to assume parental responsibility. See Wis. Stat. § 48.415(6). On appeal, he contends the circuit court erroneously imported the required finding for this ground–that he lacked a “substantial parental relationship” with the child–into the third factor of the disposition phase, which concerns only “substantial relationship(s)” between the child and M.G. or others in his family. See Wis. Stat. § 48.426(3)(c).

The court of appeals disagrees. Though there can clearly be “substantial relationships” between a child and other family members (perhaps including a parent) that are not “substantial parental relationships,” the court of appeals says M.G. is taking a single statement by the circuit court out of context, and that the rest of its comments show it applied the proper standard:

We conclude that based on the record, the trial court did properly apply the “substantial relationship” standard. M.G.’s argument is merely a focus on one word in the transcript, taken out of context. The trial court stated the legal standard three times precisely as it is stated in the statute. The grounds phase determination, which M.G. had not disputed, was that M.G. had failed to assume parental responsibility—in other words, that M.G. had not established a substantial parental relationship. The trial court said the word “parental relationship” instead of “relationship” one time in the course of its discussion—after the trial court had precisely stated its findings that M.W. did not have a substantial relationship with the parent or other family members, stating the correct legal standard. That does not mean that the trial court altered the dispositional phase analysis or applied the wrong standard.


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