Court of Appeals Hands Devastating Blow to Arlington Department of Human Services

1 Apr

In a decision of March 18, 2014, the Court of Appeals rejected the Department of Human Services attempt to terminate the parental rights of Carlos Mendoza.   The case is Dung Thi Thach v. Arlington Cnty. Dep’t of Human Servs. (Va. App., 2014).     The Arlington DHS did their typical attempt to terminate a parent’s rights as if the burden were on the parent to show why they should not be terminated.    Specifically, the Arlington DHS view that a child is better off in foster care than with their parents, was outrightly rejected.   The Court of Appeals said:

The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that “‘[w]hile it may be occasionally necessary to sever the legal relationship between parent and child, those circumstances are rare.'” Tackett, 62 Va. App. at 320, 746 S.E.2d at 521 (quoting Lowe v. Dep’t of Pub. Welfare, 231 Va. 277, 280, 343 S.E.2d 70, 72 (1986)). “‘Statutes terminating the legal relationship between parent and child should be interpreted consistently with the governmental objective of preserving, when possible, the parent-child relationship.'” Id. While circuit court judges are vested with considerable deference in determining a child’s best interest, “[i]t is clear that the Constitution requires more than a mere showing of the child’s best interest to terminate parental rights.” Copeland v. Todd, 282 Va. 183, 199, 715 S.E.2d 11, 20 (2011). “‘The fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody and management of their children does not evaporate simply because they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody . . . to the State.'” Crawley, 47 Va. App. at 581, 625 S.E.2d at 674 (quoting Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753 (1982)). “If there is ‘reason to believe that positive, nurturing parent-child relationships exist, the [state’s] parens patriae interest favors preservation, not severance, of natural familial bonds.'” Id. (quoting Santosky, 455 U.S. at 766-67). Thus, the circuit court could not terminate Mendoza’s rights because it felt that J.M’s foster parents could provide more stability than Mendoza. See Copeland, 282 Va. at 199, 715 S.E.2d at 19-20 (the state cannot “‘infringe on the fundamental right of parents . . . simply because a state judge believes a better decision could be made'” (quoting Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 72-73 (2000))).

Representing the Arlington DHS in this devastating loss was Jason McCandless.    The attorney representing Mendoza was Mark S. Thrash; G. Rex Flynn, Jr.; The Flynn Law Firm, PLLC.   Congratulation to both Mr. Thrash and his client, Mr  Mendoza.   Kudos to the Court of Appeals for getting this one right.