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Court Decides if Social Services Law is Constitutional

The two appeals before this court, involving two different sets of children, raise questions relating to Social Services Law §§ 384-b(4)(c) and 384-b(6)(a). Because in each case the trial court entertained a different view of the constitutionality of those sections, we have chosen to consolidate these appeals and consider the conflicting claims of the parties in one opinion.
A New York Family Lawyer said that, in the first case, petitioner, the Cardinal McCloskey School and Home, appeals from an order of the Family Court, New York County, entered May 15, 1980, which dismissed its petition pursuant to Social Services Law § 384-b(4)(c) for an order terminating the parental rights of respondent, on the ground, inter alia, of her mental illness. The court, after a fact-finding hearing, concluded that there was clear and convincing proof of mental illness rendering respondent unable to provide adequate supervision and guidance to the children in the foreseeable future. However, following a dispositional hearing upon the consent of all counsel, the court extended the children’s placement with petitioner, but dismissed the petition on the ground that §§ 384-b(4)(c) and 384-b(6)(a) were unconstitutional.

A New York Custody Lawyer said that, in the second case, the children, through their law guardian the Legal Aid Society, appeal from an order of the Family Court, Bronx County, entered November 15, 1979, which dismissed the petition of the Cardinal McCloskey School and Home pursuant to Social Services Law § 384-b(4)(c) seeking guardianship and custody of the children on the ground that the father, was unfit to care for them by reason of mental illness. The petition was dismissed after a fact-finding hearing at which the court found there was insufficient proof to support a termination of parental rights based on mental illness.

A Bronx Custody Lawyer said that, the court also dismissed as without merit an attack by respondent upon the constitutionality of §§ 384-b(4)(c) and 384-b(6)(a). Respondent father, cross appeals from the same order to the extent that the order fails to declare the underlying statute, Social Services Law §§ 384-b(4)(c) and 384-b(6)(a), unconstitutional.
The issue in this case is whether Social Services Law §§ 384-b(4)(c) and 384-b(6)(a) is constitutional.

In each of the appeals before this court, the constitutionality of Social Services Law §§ 384-b(4)(c) and 384-b(6)(a) is challenged insofar as those sections deal with mental illness. This issue will safeguard against successive trials for the same offense form a cornerstone of our jurisprudence and may be invoked by the young who face institutionalization as well as by adults subject to incarceration be explored before proceeding to other issues raised on the two appeals.

In the first case, the Judge held Social Services Law §§ 384-b(4)(c) and 384-b(6)(a) unconstitutional. After reviewing all the evidence and concluding that “the respondent is mentally ill and will be for the foreseeable future”, he reviewed respondent’s challenge to the constitutionality of those sections. Unable to conclude that the statute was vague, he found, however, that it represented an excessive State intervention into respondent’s constitutionally protected rights; that although the State had a substantial interest in providing children with a permanent suitable home and thus could satisfy the “strict scrutiny” test the statute exceeded the State’s legitimate interest by compelling termination of parental rights. Expressing his opinion that adoption was not the best alternative, he implied that the statute provided for “no fault” termination of parental rights by depriving parents of such rights solely on the ground of mental illness. He denied the petition and extended the children’s placement for one year.
With regard to the first case, the Attorney General asserts that no party had standing to raise the constitutional issue and that; therefore, the Family Court improperly decided a hypothetical issue. In order to establish standing, a party must demonstrate that he is possessed of a right which the statute infringes, and that he is within the class of persons affected by the statute. It appears that the natural mother’s right to raise her own children is infringed by the statute, and that, as a mentally ill parent, she is within the class of persons affected by the statute. Hence, she did have standing to raise the constitutional issue, and the court properly addressed itself to the issue.

As to the second case, a Bronx Family Lawyer said the Attorney General asserts that the father lacks standing to raise the statute’s constitutionality, but it appears that Samuel does have standing, because as does respondent in the first case, the substantive right to remain the parent of his children is threatened. The Attorney General also contends that Samuel is precluded from raising the constitutionality of the statute, as he did not raise it below. However, the record discloses that Samuel raised the issued during the opening and closing proceedings of the hearing. Finally, the Attorney General objects that the constitutional issues need not be reached as the complaint was dismissed for insufficient proof. However, appellants are also challenging the finding of insufficient proof, and if they are successful, the constitutional issue will be important. Moreover, since the issue must be treated in the first case, and it is likely that the issue will appear again in other matters, this court will review the issue in some detail.
The court holds that the challenge to the statute’s constitutionality is without merit. (1) The statute’s challengers correctly assert that a parent’s right to raise his child is a fundamental liberty enjoying strong constitutional protection. Furthermore, they accurately characterize termination of parental rights as one of the most severe forms of deprivation that can be imposed upon a parent, and that only the most countervailing interests can outweigh the rights abridged by termination. Indeed, New York courts have consistently followed the United States Supreme Court’s guidelines and have held that the State cannot sever family ties without a showing of abandonment, neglect, unfitness or other extraordinary circumstances; and Social Services Law § 384-b(4) sets forth strict standards to apply in those few situations where parental rights can be terminated. Therefore, the statute does not violate the Constitution merely because it provides for termination of parental rights.

(2) The statute’s challengers claim that the statute violates equal protection by treating mentally ill parents differently from other parents and by failing to provide for long-term foster care and a dispositional hearing. Although the statute does treat mentally ill parents differently from other parents, this distinction does not violate the rights of mentally ill parents to equal protection unless it is arbitrary and capricious. In order to ascertain whether the law violates equal protection standards, the court must examine: A. The character of the classification; and B. the individual interests affected; and C. The governmental interest involved.

The class created by Social Services Law §§ 384-b(4)(c) and 384-b(6)(a) does not include all mentally ill parents, but only those who, by reason of their infirmity are now and in the foreseeable future so unable to care for their children that their children would be in danger of suffering neglect if returned to them. Therefore, the difference in treatment is not between all mentally ill and all “sane” parents, but only between parents so mentally ill that they cannot care for their children, and all other parents, whether mentally ill or not, who can. The individual interests affected are those of the parents to raise or even maintain contact with their natural children, and the children’s need for a permanent and secure home which can provide them with proper care and education Social Services Law § 384-b The State also has a substantial, if not compelling interest in ensuring that children are maintained is such homes. The statute balances the interests of the parents, children and State by requiring a clear and convincing quantum of proof that the parent’s mental illness precludes him from properly caring for his child. Therefore, the statute does not violate equal protection, as it reasonably promotes a substantial State interest in the welfare of children and rests upon real and substantial differences between such mentally ill parents and all other parents, fairly balances all the parties’ interests and treats all members of the class in a similar manner.

The challenging parties further contend that the statute violates equal protection by presuming that mentally ill parents are unable to care for children, thereby resulting in “no-fault termination” of parental rights. However, as previously discussed, the statute does not characterize all mentally ill parents as unable to care for their children; rather, it provides a careful test for ascertaining whether a particular parent’s mental illness renders him unable to care or plan for the child. The statute, by focusing on conduct, does not create an irrebuttable presumption of parental incapacity to care or plan for their children.

The challengers assert that the statute places an unfair burden on them by denying them the agency’s diligent efforts, as provided for in the neglect statute. However, in every instance the agency must make diligent efforts to strengthen the family relationship from the moment the child is placed. A separate showing of diligence with mentally ill parents would serve no purpose, as those mentally ill parents falling within the statutory definition would still not be able to care or plan for their children, notwithstanding agency efforts.

The statute’s failure to provide for a separate dispositional hearing, as it does in the neglect statute, does not violate equal protection, as it is based on reasonable differences between the two situations. As the Attorney General points out, there is a different scope of proof at a neglect fact-finding hearing than at a mental illness hearing. Once parental neglect is determined, the dispositional phase allows the parent an opportunity to conform to established standards of parental conduct so as to prove fitness to care for his children in the foreseeable future. In connection with the termination of parental rights on ground of mental illness, the court must find that the parent is presently and for the foreseeable future unable to care for the child because of mental illness. In this situation, the impossibility of the child’s return to the natural family is already decided once a finding of such mental illness is made, and a separate dispositional hearing is not required. None of the provisions of the statute unreasonably treat mentally ill parents differently from other parents, and the statute meets constitutional equal protection standards.

(3) The statute’s challengers claim that the statute violates procedural due process guarantees by failing to provide for a separate dispositional hearing, and by allegedly requiring automatic termination whenever a parent is found mentally ill. Procedural due process is applied flexibly, and calls for procedures appropriate to the situation. (4) The challengers argue that the statute is unconstitutionally vague. Vagueness is addressed to basic concepts of fairness. In order to avoid a finding of vagueness, a statute must: A. Provide fair notice of the proscribed behavior; and B. Set clear enough standards so that the statute will not be enforced in a subjective or arbitrary way; and C. Not be so overbroad as to result in an inhibition of constitutionally protected activity.

The challengers claim that the statutory terms “foreseeable future,” “mental illness,” “danger of becoming neglected,” and “proper and adequate care,” are so devoid of meaning as to render the statute unconstitutional. However, “foreseeable future,” although not a precise time limit, does set forth a standard commonly understood by medical professionals and laymen. Furthermore, the flexibility of the term offers mentally ill parents greater protection than would a precise time limit because their failure to recover within a precise time limit would cut off their parental rights, despite the real possibility of recovery sometime beyond the time limit.

Second, “mental illness,” although subject to varying shades of meaning, is referred to in the statute as a disorder or impairment affecting parental conduct to such an extent that the parent cannot care for the child. Such a definition, by focusing on parental conduct, avoids the possible challenge of imprecision. Third, the phrase “danger of becoming a neglected child” is explained by reference to the definition of neglect contained in Social Services Law § 384-b(7)(a) and Family Court Act § 1012(f)(i). The phrase “proper and adequate care” also receives its meaning through the statutory definition of neglect, which provides objective unambiguous criteria by which neglect is determined.

Therefore, the statute, while sufficiently elastic to protect parental rights, is not so indefinite as to deprive parents of fair notice of the behavior affected. Similarly, the statute sets forth clear enough standards so that enforcement will not be subjective or arbitrary. The statute does not infringe upon constitutionally protected activity by a parent to plan or care for a child. Mentally ill parents are not punished for their mental illness per se as the challengers assert; rather, only mentally ill parents who cannot care for their children are affected, and the neglect of children is not constitutionally protected activity.

(5) Finally, the challengers claim that the statute violates substantive due process by penalizing status rather than conduct, and because it requires automatic termination in every case. However, as previously discussed, it does not penalize a parent’s mentally ill status. Rather, it terminates a mentally ill parent’s parental rights only when the illness renders the parent unable to provide a child with the minimum requirements of care. This test focuses on a parent’s conduct or ability to engage in certain conduct, and does not penalize a parent for being mentally ill. Indeed some mentally ill parents have been found fit to care for their children.

Second, the statute does not require automatic termination, as previously discussed. Only when a parent is found, by reason of mental illness, unable to discharge his duty of care and planning for his child, can his parental rights be terminated. Therefore, the statute does not violate substantive due process standards, as there is a compelling State interest in seeing that children are permanently placed with qualified persons who could perform the parental function of care and planning for the child, and the statute is drawn as narrowly as possible to effectuate that purpose.

Accordingly, Social Services Law §§ 384-b(4)(c) and 384-b(6)(a) are not unconstitutional.
The fact that the statute does not provide for long-term foster care does not render it is violative of equal protection standards. If you want to question the constitutionality of a certain statute, seek the representation of Bronx Family Attorney and/or Bronx Order of Protection Attorney at Stephen Bilkis and Associates.

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