Missouri Supreme Court weighs whether crimes against children should sever parental rights

The Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

The Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City. | Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent

Missouri’s highest court this week heard arguments over the constitutionality of a two-year-old state law terminating parental rights following a conviction for certain crimes against children. 

The case, heard Wednesday by the state Supreme Court, involves a Jefferson County father whose parental rights were terminated after he pled guilty to child molestation and sexual misconduct in 2022. Both the father and the child are unnamed in legal filings.

Termination of parental rights means the permanent severance of the parent-child relationship and is sometimes referred to as the “death penalty of civil cases.” 

Before the law was amended by the legislature in 2021, there was a requirement the child victim be familially related to the parent in order for the state to have grounds to prove parental unfitness. In this case, the victims were unrelated to the father and the crimes to which he pled guilty occurred before the child was born.

The father’s attorney, David Crosby, argued Wednesday that not all felony offenses “involving a child under 18 warrant a termination of parental rights,” including in his legal brief the hypothetical of an 18-year-old assistant coach having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student, which is a class E felony.

“The question is, where do you draw the line?” Crosby said. “Well, the legislature needs to draw the line or this court needs to draw the line because the judges need to understand what’s required.”

He added: “The process of eviscerating family ties should not be simple, it should not be easy.”

Jason Sapp, an attorney representing the juvenile office, which files petitions for courts to terminate parental rights, emphasized on Wednesday that the government has a “duty to protect children.”

The criminal acts that could lead to termination of parental rights under the law include criminal sexual offenses, prostitution offenses, criminal offenses against the family and criminal pornography and related offenses. 

“You have proven contact of a parent that rose to the level of a felony and speaks to how that parent behaves towards children,” Sapp said.

To terminate parental rights, the state is required to first prove parental unfitness — designed to be a steep hurdle to protect parents’ liberties. It  requires clear, cogent and convincing evidence. Only then comes an evaluation of what is in the child’s best interests, which requires a lower standard of evidence.

Crosby argues the law is unconstitutional because it makes felony convictions involving children proof of unfitness — providing automatic grounds for termination of parental rights rather than case-by-case evaluation of fitness and depriving people of the chance to contest the conclusion of unfitness.

The state counters that a conviction itself “speaks to the conduct of the parent that goes to parental unfitness,” and the parent’s chance to rebut that finding came earlier, in the criminal proceeding.

“There is a more than reasonable logical connection,” the state’s attorneys wrote in a brief, “between a person engaging in felonious criminal acts under any of these chapters where a child is the victim and that person’s fitness to serve in a parent’s authoritative role of responsibility for the care and well-being of a child.”

The judges’ questions Wednesday surrounded the trial court’s discretion to choose to enter a judgment terminating rights after the juvenile office filed for it. Crosby said that although the court does have some discretion, that is not a sufficient check guaranteeing a parents’ constitutional rights.

“The court is supposed to have the least-restrictive means to protect the liberties of the parent. And statute offers them no guidance at all. It says if it’s a conviction, then you go straight to the best interest, regardless of what it is,” Crosby said.

Crosby argued there should be a specific case-by-case judicial finding that the parent is unfit, which could include factors such as the parent’s treatment and rehabilitation, age and frequency of the crime. 

“There are sexual offense crimes that do not involve family members that — I’m not here to protect people who have been charged with sex crimes — but they are people that are entitled to the right to have their children,” Crosby said. “And what the legislature is doing is punishing. Instead of saying this is what’s best for the children. We just want to punish people who have perpetrated crimes against children.”

The court did not take action in the case on Wednesday. 

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