People in Interest of A.M., 2020 COA 30

In this decision, the Court of Appeals reverses an order terminating the parent-child legal relationship, holding that if a juvenile court determines that an allocation of parental responsibilities adequately serves a child’s physical, mental, and emotional needs, including providing for adequate permanence, a juvenile court cannot terminate the relationship on the basis that termination serves the child’s best interests.

In the relatively unique circumstances of this case, the juvenile court initially denied the department’s motion to terminate because it found that allocation of parental responsibilities (“APR”) to the aunt was a viable less drastic alternative. The department appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded in an unpublished opinion instructing the juvenile court to determine whether APR was in the best interests of the child. On remand, the parties did not issue any additional evidence or positions, and the juvenile court issued a new order specifically finding that both APR and termination “would serve A.M.’s physical, mental, and emotional needs”, but that because termination “provides a slightly higher probability of permanence,” termination was in A.M.’s best interests.

After determining that neither the “law of the case doctrine” nor “claim preclusion” requires dismissal of the issues on appeal, the Court of Appeals provides an overview of other divisions’ decisions regarding less drastic alternatives. The Court concludes that these cases do not require “that the phrase ‘best interests of the child’ be used as a superlative” but that “the inquiry must be whether there is an alternative short of termination that adequately meets the child’s physical, emotional, and mental health needs.” Because the juvenile court specifically found that both APR and termination adequately met A.M.’s needs, the Court of Appeals reverses the termination order and remands for allocation of parental responsibilities unless the GAL or department assert changed circumstances.

The GAL filed a petition for certiorari on this case; the Supreme Court has not yet ruled on that petition.

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