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V.T.B. v. J.P.B. (In the Interest of B.T.B.) - 2018 UT App 157, 436 P.3d 206

Rule:

Courts should analyze the "strictly necessary" language in Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1) (2012) as part of the best interest element of the historical test for termination of parental rights, but—partly because of the addition of the strictly necessary aspect of the analysis—the best interest inquiry should be applied in a more thorough and independent manner than some of the Utah cases might suggest.

Facts:

Father V.T.B. appeals the juvenile court's order terminating his parental rights to his children, B.T.B. and B.Z.B. He contends that termination was not "strictly necessary" in this case, for various reasons.

The father and the mother J.P.B. married in 2010 and divorced in 2013. B.T.B. and B.Z.B. are their children. After the divorce, the children remained in the mother's custody; they have never been in the custody of the State. Beginning in 2012, the father has periodically been incarcerated for a variety of offenses, largely resulting from drug use. Since the divorce, the father has had only occasional contact with the children, visiting them a total of 14 times and sending them infrequent letters and Facebook messages. The father has never paid child support, despite being ordered to do so.

The father appeals the juvenile court's order terminating his rights. The crux of the appeal is whether the juvenile court correctly applied the "strictly necessary" language to the historical test for termination of parental rights.

Issue:

Did a juvenile court correctly apply the "strictly necessary" language in Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1) (2012) to the historical test for termination of parental rights?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The intermediate appellate court determined that courts were to analyze the "strictly necessary" language in Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1) as part of the best interest element of the historical test for termination of parental rights, but—partly because of the addition of the strictly necessary aspect of the analysis—the best interest inquiry was to be applied in a more thorough and independent manner than some of the Utah cases might have suggested. Accordingly, it was best to vacate the juvenile court's termination order, and remand the case for reconsideration of the best interest portion of the two-part termination of parental rights test.

In terms of what "strictly necessary" actually means, the phrase is not defined in the relevant statutory section. If it were, "we would of course look there first." Because it is not defined in the statute, and because we are unaware of any specialized meaning of the phrase that ought to apply, we must interpret the statutory language "according to the plain meaning of [its] text."

Accordingly, when we give the words "strictly necessary" their plain meaning, we understand that the legislature intended for courts to terminate parental rights only in situations when it is absolutely essential to do so. Because this analysis should occur within the context of the "best interest" examination, it should be undertaken from the child's point of view, not the parent's. A court should not ask whether termination is strictly necessary to further an objective of one of the parents; instead, courts should ask whether it is absolutely essential to the child's best interest that a parent's rights be permanently severed.

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