Florida Supreme Court urged to consider question of termination of parental rights

TALLAHASSEE — In a case stemming from a woman who put a newborn infant in a trash bag, an appeals court Wednesday asked the Florida Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of a 2014 change in state law dealing with the termination of parental rights.

The decision Wednesday by a panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal was the second time in less than four months that the South Florida appellate court has taken up the constitutional issue. Asking the Supreme Court to consider the issue is known as certifying a “question of great public importance.”

The question focuses on a 2014 change that involves siblings of children suspected of being abused — and whether parental rights should be terminated for those siblings.

The change in law said authorities are not required to prove a “nexus between egregious conduct to a child and the potential harm to the child’s sibling” in terminating parental rights for siblings.

Attorneys for parents have challenged the constitutionality of the change, with divided panels of the appellate court upholding the change in a June case and again Wednesday.

Wednesday’s decision came in an appeal by a woman, identified only by the initials R.S., who gave birth to a girl in a bathroom. The woman, who said she did not know she was pregnant, thought the baby was dead and put it in a trash bag near a dumpster, according to Wednesday’s ruling in the Palm Beach County case.

Maintenance workers heard the baby cry and rescued her, with the child surviving. The woman was charged with attempted murder and aggravated child abuse, and the Florida Department of Children and Families filed a petition to terminate her rights to the baby and an older boy.

A circuit judge terminated the woman’s parental rights to both children. In the appeal, the woman argued that the 2014 change in state law “unconstitutionally permits termination of her fundamental parental right to her son without proof that her conduct towards her infant daughter creates substantial risk of harm to her son,” according to Wednesday’s ruling.

In upholding the circuit judge’s decision, appellate Judges Jonathan Gerber and Mark Klingensmith cited the June decision that upheld the constitutionality of the change.

“The 2014 amendment eliminating the nexus requirement embodies a legislative recognition that egregious conduct toward one child not only threatens the life and safety of the child’s siblings, but also threatens their ‘physical, mental, or emotional health,’” said the June decision, which involved terminating a woman’s parental rights for four children after being suspected of abusing one of them.

But Judge Martha Warner wrote dissenting opinions in Wednesday’s case and in June, arguing that the law is unconstitutional. In June, she wrote that the “2014 change violates a parent’s fundamental right to parent by relieving the state of its burden to show that the parent poses a substantial risk of harm to a child, simply by proving an act of egregious conduct towards a sibling.”

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