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146680 - In re Sanders, Minors

In re Sanders, Minors.
Department of Human Services,
Jerrold E. Schrotenboer
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals)
(Jackson – LaFlamme, R.)
Lance Laird,
Vivek S. Sankaran


Lance Laird and Tammy Sanders are the parents of two young children. Laird and Sanders, who never married, had a history of domestic violence and drug use. When the younger child was born in September 2011, the baby tested positive for drugs, as did Sanders. The Department of Human Services filed a petition, seeking to have the court take temporary jurisdiction of both children due to Sanders’ drug use. The baby was removed from Sanders’ custody and placed with Laird, who already had the older child living with him.


On October 26, 2011, Laird, who was on probation for a domestic violence conviction and subject to random drug testing, tested positive for cocaine. Child Protective Services had also received reports that Laird and Sanders were spending weekends together at local motels to get high on cocaine (although it was unknown whether the children were with them), and that Laird was allowing Sanders to have contact with the children, even though DHS had warned him not to do so.  Based on this information, DHS filed an amended petition on November 7, 2011, asking the court to remove the children from Laird’s home and place them in DHS’ care.


At a preliminary hearing on November 16, 2011, the court ordered the children removed from Laird’s care and placed in DHS’ custody, but granted both parents unsupervised parenting time at DHS’ discretion. DHS placed the children with an aunt.


Laird contested the allegations in the amended petition and requested a jury trial. In February 2012, Sanders pled no contest to the allegations in the amended petition. At a hearing after Sanders’ plea, the court ordered Sanders to complete a service plan and also directed that Laird should have only supervised contact with the children.


Laird’s jury trial was scheduled for May 1, 2012, but ultimately, DHS dismissed the last remaining allegation against him in the amended petition – which concerned his positive drug screen – because his subsequent drug screens had been negative. As a result, the May 1 trial was never held. Instead, at a dispositional review hearing, the court applied the one-parent doctrine to continue the children’s placement with their aunt and to order Laird to comply with a service plan, including a psychological evaluation, parenting classes, substance abuse assessment, random drug screens, maintaining housing and employment, and abiding by the terms of his probation.


In August 2012, Laird’s attorney moved for immediate placement of the children with Laird, which DHS and the children’s lawyer guardian ad litem opposed. At a hearing on September 5, 2012, Laird’s attorney argued that application of the one-parent doctrine was unconstitutional, and that if the court was not going to adjudicate Laird’s parental fitness, the court must immediately place the children with Laird.


The judge denied Laird’s motion; in a written opinion, the judge stated that, under the one-parent doctrine, he had obtained jurisdiction over the children by virtue of the mother’s no contest plea. The judge cited In re CR, 250 Mich App 185 (2002). In that case, the Court of Appeals held that “once the family court acquires jurisdiction over the children, MCR 5.973(A) [now MCR 3.973(A)] authorizes the family court to hold a dispositional hearing ‘to determine measures to be taken . . . against any adult . . . .’” The Court of Appeals held that the family court could order the father in that case to submit to drug testing and comply with other conditions to ensure the children’s safety, based on the mother’s no contest plea and even though the father was not a respondent in the proceedings. The Court of Appeals added, “As we have explained, the court rules simply do not place a burden on a petitioner like the FIA [DHS] to file a petition and sustain the burden of proof at an adjudication with respect to every parent of the children involved in a protective proceeding before the family court can act in its dispositional capacity. The family court’s jurisdiction is tied to the children, making it possible, under proper circumstances, to terminate parental rights even of a parent who, for one reason or another, has not participated in the protective proceeding.”


The trial judge concluded that the one-parent doctrine was constitutional as applied to Laird; the judge noted that Laird had “been provided with appointed counsel,” was “informed of the conditions that necessitated removal,” and had “been offered services to address these conditions.”


Laird filed an application for leave to appeal with the Court of Appeals, but the appellate court denied his request for lack of merit in the grounds presented.


Laird sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court. He argued that the one-parent doctrine violated his right to substantive due process, allowing the family court to interfere in his relationship with his two children based solely on the plea Sanders entered, and without any finding that Laird himself was an unfit parent. Michigan law affords a parent the right to a jurisdiction trial, before a jury or a judge, to determine his or her unfitness, and the trial court had deprived Laird of that right by applying the one-parent doctrine, Laird asserted. Laird also maintained that the one-parent doctrine, as applied to him, violated his right to equal protection of the law because it created distinctions that infringed on his parental rights. As a co-respondent parent, he had fewer rights than if he were the only parent involved – in which case he would have an unconditional right to trial by jury, Laird contended.


DHS and the children’s lawyer guardian ad litem opposed Laird’s application. They argued in part that Laird is facing federal drug charges with the possibility of prison time, and that it is therefore unlikely that any ruling by the Supreme Court on the one-parent doctrine will affect the outcome of the case. They also note that the Court of Appeals has upheld the one-parent doctrine numerous times over the years against a parent’s due process challenges.


On April 5, 2013, the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal, directing the parties to “address whether the application of the one-parent doctrine violates the due process or equal protection rights of unadjudicated parents.”