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In a Dependency Action, Parental Unfitness May Not Be Implied When Findings Are Contradictory

Our state Supreme Court recently held that an appellate court may not infer a finding of parental unfitness from the trial court record unless the facts and circumstances clearly demonstrate that the finding was actually made, but not explicitly written.

In Re the Welfare of: A.B., Cause No. 89759-1, a father sought to preserve his parental rights whereas DSHS sought to terminate them.

The Supreme court based its decision on the dependency statute, RCW 13.34 et. seq.  The statute sets up a two-phase process for terminating parental rights and then placing the dependent child with a caregiver.

In the first phase, termination of parental rights, the court must find that each of the following six statutory factors have been met, by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence:

a)   the child has been found to be dependent;

b)  the court has entered a dispositional order regarding the child’s temporary placement;

c)  the child has been removed from his/her parent’s home for at least six months;

d)  the state has offered services to the child;

e)  there is little likelihood that the conditions will be remedied so that the child may be returned in the future

f)   the continuation of the parent/child relationship clearly diminishes the child’s prospects for early integration into a stable and permanent home;

In addition, per case law interpreting the Constitution, the court must find that the parent is unfit at the time of trial to be a parent.

        In the second phase of the statutory scheme, the court must determine, by a preponderance of the evidence, what placement is in the child’s best interest.

        Here, the trial court made the necessary boilerplate findings based on the language from phase I, but never made an explicit finding of parental unfitness.  In addition, it made contradictory, non-boilerplate findings seeming to indicate that the father was not unfit.

        The Supreme Court held that not finding of unfitness could be implied, given the contradictory findings, and ordered the child placed with the father.

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