Patti Klevorn - News Editor
Monday, April 6, 2009
A four-year-old Mason County girl — and just who should raise her — is at the heart of a Michigan State Supreme Court ruling filed in the Lansing court Thursday.
The girl has been living with a foster care family for three years, and now may begin the process of assimilating to life with her biological father — although she has not seen him since before she turned 2. She’s now nearing her fifth birthday.
The process has already begun to give the father, Darroll Rood, supervised visitation, then he anticipates non-supervised visitation and eventually getting custody of his daughter. The Supreme Court affirmed a Court of Appeals opinion: Mason County Trial Court was wrong in terminating Rood’s parental rights.
Although the Mason County Department of Human Services and local court could attempt to continue to keep the child from him, it must give him at least a “meaningful opportunity to participate,” which the Supreme Court ruled they had not done.
“It is going to be a process,” said Rood’s attorney Jeffrey Nellis of reunifying the father with his daughter. “We’ve already started it (since the Court of Appeals ruling last June), but it’s taken way too long.”
The Supreme Court opinion should speed that start of visitation and eventual custody by the father, he said.
Nellis said he wanted to make sure people know the foster parents in this case “are wonderful people,” he said, and he doesn’t want anyone to think they’ve done anything wrong.
The higher courts state DHS and the local court were the agencies in error.
“It’s complicated,” Nellis said of the case. “In these cases, the non-custodial parents just get overlooked.”
Is this all in the best interest of the little girl?
“If the law is followed to the letter, best interest of the child should be protected,” he said.
In this case, the court ruled the law wasn’t followed completely.
Elizabeth Warner, a Jackson attorney acting as Rood’s legal advisor, said the state’s failure to allow Rood to have any visitation with his daughter these last three years is responsible for the difficulty she may have in understanding why she has to leave the parents she currently calls mom and dad.
“It is very distressing; it is terrible,” she said of the situation. “That’s why the law is in place, to allow parents to remain in contact with their children (during the court process).”
The father and his daughter should have had continual contact through the court case period, the opinion states.
It reads: “The foster care worker must meet with ‘each parent’ face-to-face in the parent’s home and by phone at specified intervals during the pendency of the child’s placement in foster care” … The agency also “must (in bold in the opinion) use parenting time to maintain and strengthen the relationship between parent and child. … Parenting time must be provided for every parent with a legal right to the child, regardless of prior custody.”
Warner said the case will be meaningful for more than just Rood and his right to raise his child.
“It’s a wonderful victory for families and one of the most important cases — especially for fathers — that’s ever been issued in this state,” Warner said.
She gave all the credit for the win to Nellis.
Nellis is Rood’s court-appointed attorney and went “way beyond the call of duty,” Warner said. “Mason County is very lucky to have him.”
The Supreme Court ruled in the father’s favor in its opinion April 2, affirming a June 12, 2008 Court of Appeals decision that the Mason County Trial Court had erred in its handling of the case. Part of that error was not properly notifying Rood of hearings, although Rood testified he called to leave his and his girlfriend’s phone numbers and their street address, and not consulting with him to determine placement with “a fit and appropriate relative who would meet the child’s developmental, emotional, and physical needs as an alternative to foster care.”
The opinion states: “Parents must be encouraged to actively participate (in bold in the opinion),” and the foster care worker must make “an attempt or efforts to identify and locate absent parents(s)/legal guardian or putative father …
The participation of parents and members of the extended family/relative network is viewed as essential to achieving permanency and is to be actively sought.” It added, “The service plan must address ‘what the parent(s) . . . must do to achieve reunification’ and ‘what the supervising agency must do to support parental objectives.’”
Continued from page 1Notices were sent to the wrong address, not the one Rood had most recently provided the court prior to the mailings, and the phone numbers he provided apparently weren’t used, the court document states.
The Appeals Court’s opinion to reverse the local court’s decision, reaffirmed by the Supreme Court, stated Rood was “a less-than-ideal parent during his child’s brief lifetime,” but concluded that “the breakdown of communication in this case was predominantly attributable to petitioner (DHS). Although (Rood) “shares responsibility for this lack of communication,” he made the initial effort to contact the DHS, attended the hearings for which he received notice, and provided his contact information to the DHS and the court. Therefore, “it was reasonable to expect that (Rood) would become involved in the child’s life, provided that he received proper notice of the protective proceedings.”
Warner said she believes the case is unique in that the Appeals Court discovered the errors and called for them to be corrected.
“In my opinion this case is not remarkable for the mistakes that were made, but that they were caught (at the Court of Appeals level),” Warner said. “The Appellate Court found out and called them on it.”
The girl’s biological mother, who originally had custody of the girl, “voluntarily relinquished” her parental rights. That process began when she was charged with neglect, to which she pleaded no contest — not admitting guilt but accepting punishment. When the girl was first taken from her mother and placed in foster care, Rood was serving time in jail on a domestic violence conviction for an altercation with the girl’s mother after he and the girl’s mother were no longer dating and he came to spend Christmas with the child.
He also had another domestic violence conviction and had criminal issues when he was an adolescent, but said he has since learned to deal with his anger differently.
“I lost my grandfather, and a year later I lost my father,” he told the Daily News in speaking of his childhood. “My mom worked a lot, and I dealt with it in ways I shouldn’t have. But I’m not 9 or 10 anymore, I’m 33 years old now.”
“There is no child abuse in my history,” Rood said, and added there have been no criminal issues for years.
father’s raising another 4-year -old
The woman he now lives with testified he takes excellent care of her four-year-old daughter and that her daughter “loves him to death.”
The higher court opinion states Rood didn’t do all he could to be a father of his biological daughter, but that he wasn’t given a fair chance to either.
“ … his lack of contact and support is evidence of neglect. As (the child’s) natural and legal parent, although this neglect suggests that respondent was not a ‘model parent,’ … he is still entitled to notice and meaningful participation in a process affecting his parental rights.
“As explained earlier, his failure to seek visits with (his daughter) or to voluntarily provide monetary support during the proceedings was certainly additional evidence of his own neglect of his daughter. But a showing of neglect, alone, merely triggers a parent’s right to participate in (DHS) services. It does not automatically justify termination.
“Because (Rood) was neither informed about nor properly offered the evaluation and services available to aid the court in making the latter determination, his rights could not be terminated merely because of his failure to provide care and custody.”
Rood did not pay child support, but was never ordered to pay it, the court stated.
He testified in court he had provided items for the child but did not want to give the mother money because she used it for alcohol, and no one attempted to seek child support from him. He said he would have paid if ordered to.
He said the child’s mother did not want him to see her most of the time he tried, although occasionally would call him to take her overnight if the mother wanted to party. He contacted authorities about the child’s well-being, but did not follow through on the results, the opinion states.
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