DETROIT (AP) — The Michigan Supreme Court unanimously overturned the decisions of a Kalamazoo-area judge who terminated the parental rights of a poor couple after their two children had missed 25% of school.
While the absences in 2017-18 were higher than the school's average, there was no evidence of resulting harm or neglect, the court said Friday, a key threshold when a judge decides whether to take jurisdiction over children.
The case was closely watched by advocates for poor families, especially during a pandemic when education has been significantly disrupted.
“In 2017, over 230,000 children were chronically absent,” Tim Pinto, an attorney for the father, said during arguments in March. “I'm positive that those stats are much worse today."
Kalamazoo County Judge G. Scott Pierangeli placed the two children in foster care in 2018 and ordered the parents to meet several conditions, including drug screens, counseling, psychological evaluation and employment.
Parental rights were subsequently terminated because the couple didn't engage in certain services, according to a summary of the case.
“If the only issue was school absenteeism, I'm not sure the service plan made sense,” Pinto said in an interview Monday.
One child's first-grade teacher said he had been performing at grade level despite absences. There was no testimony about his sister's performance, according to the child welfare appellate clinic at University of Michigan law school, which represented the father.
The case now will return to Kalamazoo County. The children's mother did not appeal the termination of her parental rights at the Supreme Court.
Before losing their rights, the couple had many challenges. They fell behind in rent after the funeral of a 22-year-old daughter. The father also was hospitalized with a chronic illness.
The Supreme Court agreed with an appellate judge who said Pierangeli was wrong to take control over the children, who now are 9 and 13.
“Ideally, every child should have perfect school attendance, but I cannot conclude that a 75% average absenteeism rate is a convincing force of there being educational neglect that is on the level of child abuse,” Judge Michael Riordan said last year.
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