Best Interest of the Child Examined in Custody Proceedings

Termination of Parental Rights in the Best Interest of the Child

In the recent decision in SCDSS v. M.R.C.L, the South Carolina Supreme Court examined the standard regarding the best interest of the child in situations involving termination of parental rights (TPR). SCDSS v. M.R.C.L, Opinion No. 27007 (2011). The court considered the biological mother’s history of recurring drug and alcohol abuse, her lack of interest in obtaining employment in order to support the child, and her lack of bond with the child in reversing the decision of the Court of Appeals and finding that TPR was in the best interest of the child.

The main issue in the case was whether the mother willfully failed to support her child, and if so, whether TPR was in the best interest of the child. Whether a parent’s failure to support a child is “willful” is a question of intent to be determined by the facts and circumstances of each case, and willfulness must be established by clear and convincing evidence. See S.C. Dep’t of Soc. Servs. v. Broome, 307 S.C. 48, 52 (1992); S.C. Dep’t of Soc. Servs. v. Smith, 343 S.C. 129, 137 (2000). The Supreme Court examined the TPR statute which requires the parent to make a material contribution to support the child, in the form of financial support or providing other necessities, according to the parent’s means.

The Court of Appeals found that the mother’s efforts did not indicate a “settled purpose to forego parental duties”, considering her very limited means which include the father’s disability benefits and food stamps. The Court of Appeals also found that the mother’s occasional contribution of toys, food, clothes, diapers, and wipes during her visits with the child was enough to defeat a finding of willful failure of support.

The Supreme Court, however, was not convinced that the mother’s failure to support the child was not willful. The court viewed the mother’s failure to complete job counseling through South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation and failure to make an effort to earn her GED as evidence of her indifference to her child and her intent to forego her parental responsibilities. The court also noted that the mother had the means to provide some financial support to the child, but chose to spend the money on other expenses such as caring for her ten dogs at an estimated rate of fifty dollars per month. Accordingly, the court found that the Court of Appeals erred in holding that Department of Social Services failed to show by clear and convincing evidence that the mother willfully failed to support the child and found that TPR was in the child’s best interest.

If you or somebody you know is facing a custody battle, please contact one of our family law attorneys. Miller|Conway is a Goose Creek law firm serving Charleston and the Greater South Carolina area.

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