On May 1, 2013, Governor Dayton signed into law the Family Reunification Act of 2013. This new law permits the reestablishment of the parent and child legal relationship for certain children who are under the guardianship of the Commissioner of Human Services. The law is exciting for those children who have remained in foster care for significant periods of time without being adopted and wish to return to the care of their biological parents as well as for those parents who have been able to correct the problems that led to their initial termination of parental rights.
The new law has several qualifiers. Specifically, it provides that only the county attorney may file a petition for reunification. Minn. Stat. §260C.329, subd. 3 (anticipated 2013). Thus, terminated parents, children and guardian ad litems are unable to request reunification under the new law.
A petition to reunify and legally restore the parent child relationship may not be filed if the previous termination of parental rights was based on a finding of either sexual abuse or conduct that resulted in the death of a minor. Id. subd. 4. Additionally, a petition may not be filed if the previous parent has been convicted of any crime listed under Minn. Stat. § 260C.007, subd. 14 (2012). Id. Such crimes include, murder, manslaughter, criminal vehicular homicide, substantial bodily harm to a child, felony assault, felony malicious punishment of a child, felony unreasonable restraint of a child, felony neglect or endangerment of a child, solicitation inducement or promotion of prostitution, criminal sexual conduct toward a child, and federal murder or voluntary manslaughter.
Finally, a petition may not be filed unless the following factors exist:
- both the responsible social services agency and county attorney agree that reestablishment of the legal parent and child relationship is in the child’s best interest;
- the parent has corrected the conditions that led to an order terminating parental rights;
- the parent is willing and has the capability to provide day-to-day care and maintain the health, safety, and welfare of the child;
- the child has been in foster care for at least 36 months after the court issued the order terminating parental rights;
- the child is 15 years of age or older at the time the petition for reestablishment of the legal parent and child relationship is filed;
- the child has not been adopted; and
- the child is not the subject of a written adoption placement agreement[.]
Id. subd. 3.
Once the petition has been served on the child, the child’s Guardian ad Litem, the proposed parent, and tribe if the child is subject to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a hearing must be held before the court that issued the termination order and conducts the child’s adoption reviews. Id. subds. 7-8. The standard for the court is whether the evidence is clear and convincing. Id. subd. 8.
The court may grant the petition if it finds:
- reestablishment of the legal parent and child relationship is in the child’s best interests;
- the child is 15 years of age or older;
- the child has not been adopted;
- the child is not subject to a written adoption placement agreement . . . ;
- at least 36 months have elapsed following a final order terminating parental rights and the child remains in care;
- the child desires to reside with the parent;
- the parent has corrected the corrections that led to an order terminating parental rights; and
- the parent is willing and has the capability to provide day-to-day care and maintain the health, safety, and welfare of the child.
If a petition is granted by the court, the child is no longer a state ward and all rights and legal responsibilities of the parent child relationship are restored. Id. subd.11. The child will be returned to the legal and physical custody of his or her parent. Id.
In certain circumstances, this new law will allow terminated parents and their children with the opportunity to reunify. This new law acknowledges that even after lengthy periods of time, there are parents who are able to change and provide for their children. The Family Reunification Act now provides a legal remedy that did not previously exist for children who have remained in care for significant periods of time to return home. No one wants children to languish in care. When parents have changed and are able to parent, the children’s needs should be assessed to be determined if reunification is appropriate. Thankfully, Minnesota has now created a legal avenue to effect such an option.
CLC will continue to inform its clients and volunteer attorneys of any further legal developments concerning this new law.