|Santosky v. Kramer
[ Blackmun ]
[ Rehnquist ]
Santosky v. Kramer
CERTIORARI TO THE APPELLATE DIVISION, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, THIRD JUDICIAL DEPARTMENT
JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.
Under New York law, the State may terminate, over parental objection, the rights of parents in their natural child upon a finding that the child is "permanently neglected." N.Y.Soc.Serv.Law §§ 384-b.4.(d), 384-b.7.(a) (McKinney Supp.1981-1982) (Soc.Serv.Law). The New York Family Court Act § 622 (McKinney 1975 and Supp.1981-1982) (Fam.Ct.Act) requires that only a "fair preponderance of the evidence" support that finding. Thus, in New York, the factual certainty required to extinguish the parent-child relationship is no greater than that necessary to award money damages in an ordinary civil action.
Today we hold that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment demands more than this. Before a State may sever completely and irrevocably the rights of parents in [p748] their natural child, due process requires that the State support its allegations by at least clear and convincing evidence.
New York authorizes its officials to remove a child temporarily from his or her home if the child appears "neglected," within the meaning of Art. 10 of the Family Court Act. See §§ 1012(f), 1021-1029. Once removed, a child under the age of 18 customarily is placed "in the care of an authorized agency," Soc.Serv.Law § 384-b.7.(a), usually a state institution or a foster home. At that point, "the state's first obligation is to help the family with services to . . . reunite it. . . ." § 384-b.1.(a)(iii). But if convinced that "positive, nurturing parent-child relationships no longer exist," § 384-b.1.(b), the State may initiate "permanent neglect" proceedings to free the child for adoption.
The State bifurcates its permanent neglect proceeding into "factfinding" and "dispositional" hearings. Fam.Ct.Act §§ 622, 623. At the factfinding stage, the State must prove that the child has been "permanently neglected," as defined by Fam.Ct.Act §§ 614.1.(a)-(d) and Soc.Serv.Law § 384-b.7.(a). See Fam.Ct.Act § 622. The Family Court judge then determines at a subsequent dispositional hearing what placement would serve the child's best interests. §§ 623, 631.
At the factfinding hearing, the State must establish, among other things, that, for more than a year after the child entered state custody, the agency "made diligent efforts to encourage and strengthen the parental relationship." Fam.Ct.Act §§ 614.1.(c), 611. The State must further prove that, during that same period, the child's natural parents failed
substantially and continuously or repeatedly to maintain contact with or plan for the future of the child although physically and financially able to do so.
§ 614.1.(d). Should the State support its allegations by "a fair preponderance of the evidence," § 622, the child may be declared permanently neglected. [p749] § 611. That declaration empowers the Family Court judge to terminate permanently the natural parents' rights in the child. §§ 631(c), 634. Termination denies the natural parents physical custody, as well as the rights ever to visit, communicate with, or regain custody of, the child. [n1]
New York's permanent neglect statute provides natural parents with certain procedural protections. [n2] But New York permits its officials to establish "permanent neglect" with less proof than most States require. Thirty-five States, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands currently specify a higher standard of proof, in parental rights termination proceedings, than a "fair preponderance of the evidence." [n3] The only analogous federal statute of which we are aware [p750] permits termination of parental rights solely upon "evidence beyond a reasonable doubt." Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, Pub.L. 95-608, § 102(f), 92 Stat. 3072, 25 U.S.C. § 1912(f) (1976 ed., Supp. IV). The question here is whether [p751] New York's "fair preponderance of the evidence" standard is constitutionally sufficient.
Petitioners John Santosky II and Annie Santosky are the natural parents of Tina and John III. In November, 1973, after incidents reflecting parental neglect, respondent Kramer, Commissioner of the Ulster County Department of Social Services, initiated a neglect proceeding under Fam.Ct.Act § 1022 and removed Tina from her natural home. About 10 months later, he removed John III and placed him with foster parents. On the day John was taken, Annie Santosky gave birth to a third child, Jed. When Jed was only three days old, respondent transferred him to a foster home on the ground that immediate removal was necessary to avoid imminent danger to his life or health.
In October, 1978, respondent petitioned the Ulster County Family Court to terminate petitioners' parental rights in the three children. [n4] Petitioners challenged the constitutionality of the "fair preponderance of the evidence" standard specified in Fam.Ct.Act § 622. The Family Court Judge rejected this constitutional challenge, App. 29 30, and weighed the evidence under the statutory standard. While acknowledging that the Santoskys had maintained contact with their children, the judge found those visits, "at best, superficial and devoid of any real emotional content." Id. at 21. After [p752] deciding that the agency had made "‘diligent efforts' to encourage and strengthen the parental relationship," id. at 30, he concluded that the Santoskys were incapable, even with public assistance, of planning for the future of their children. Id. at 33-37. The judge later held a dispositional hearing and ruled that the best interests of the three children required permanent termination of the Santoskys' custody. [n5] Id. at 39.
Petitioners appealed, again contesting the constitutionality of § 622's standard of proof. [n6] The New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, affirmed, holding application of the preponderance of the evidence standard "proper and constitutional." In re John AA, 75 App.Div.2d 910, 427 N.Y.S.2d 319, 320 (1980). That standard, the court reasoned, "recognizes and seeks to balance rights possessed by the child . . . with those of the natural parents. . . ." Ibid.
The New York Court of Appeals then dismissed petitioners' appeal to that court "upon the ground that no substantial constitutional question is directly involved." App. 55. We granted certiorari to consider petitioners' constitutional claim. 450 U.S. 993 (1981).
Last Term, in Lassiter v. Department of Social Services, 452 U.S. 18 (1981), this Court, by a 5-4 vote, held that the [p753] Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause does not require the appointment of counsel for indigent parents in every parental status termination proceeding. The case casts light, however, on the two central questions her -- whether process is constitutionally due a natural parent at a State's parental rights termination proceeding, and, if so, what process is due.
In Lassiter, it was
not disputed that state intervention to terminate the relationship between [a parent] and [the] child must be accomplished by procedures meeting the requisites of the Due Process Clause.
Id. at 37 (first dissenting opinion); see id. at 24-32 (opinion of the Court); id. at 59-60 (STEVENS, J., dissenting). See also Little v. Streater, 452 U.S. 1, 13 (1981). The absence of dispute reflected this Court's historical recognition that freedom of personal choice in matters of family life is a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246, 255 (1978); Smith v. Organization of Foster Families, 431 U.S. 816, 845 (1977); Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494, 499 (1977) (plurality opinion); Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur, 414 U.S. 632, 639-640 (1974); Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651-652 (1972); Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166 (1944); Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 534-535 (1925); Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 399 (1923).
The fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody, and management of their child does not evaporate simply because they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody of their child to the State. Even when blood relationships are strained, parents retain a vital interest in preventing the irretrievable destruction of their family life. If anything, persons faced with forced dissolution of their parental rights have a more critical need for procedural protections than do those resisting state intervention into ongoing family affairs. When the State moves to [p754] destroy weakened familial bonds, it must provide the parents with fundamentally fair procedures. [n7]
In Lassiter, the Court and three dissenters agreed that the nature of the process due in parental rights termination proceedings turns on a balancing of the "three distinct factors" specified in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 335 (1976): the private interests affected by the proceeding; the risk of error created by the State's chosen procedure; and the countervailing governmental interest supporting use of the challenged procedure. See 452 U.S. at 27-31; id. at 37-48 (first dissenting opinion). But see id. at 59-60 (STEVENS, J., dissenting). While the respective Lassiter opinions disputed whether those factors should be weighed against a presumption disfavoring appointed counsel for one not threatened with loss of physical liberty, compare 452 U.S. at 31-32, with id. at 41, and n. 8 (first dissenting opinion), that concern is irrelevant here. Unlike the Court's right-to-counsel rulings, its decisions concerning constitutional burdens of proof have not turned on any presumption favoring any particular standard. To the contrary, the Court has engaged in a straightforward consideration of the factors identified in Eldridge to determine whether a particular standard of proof in a particular proceeding satisfies due process.
In Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418 (1979), the Court, by a unanimous vote of the participating Justices, declared:
The function of a standard of proof, as that concept is embodied in the Due Process Clause and in the realm of factfinding, is to [p755] "instruct the factfinder concerning the degree of confidence our society thinks he should have in the correctness of factual conclusions for a particular type of adjudication."
Id. at 423, quoting In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 370 (1970) (Harlan, J., concurring). Addington teaches that, in any given proceeding, the minimum standard of proof tolerated by the due process requirement reflects not only the weight of the private and public interests affected, but also a societal judgment about how the risk of error should be distributed between the litigants.
Thus, while private parties may be interested intensely in a civil dispute over money damages, application of a "fair preponderance of the evidence" standard indicates both society's "minimal concern with the outcome," and a conclusion that the litigants should "share the risk of error in roughly equal fashion." 441 U.S. at 423. When the State brings a criminal action to deny a defendant liberty or life, however,
the interests of the defendant are of such magnitude that historically, and without any explicit constitutional requirement, they have been protected by standards of proof designed to exclude, as nearly as possible, the likelihood of an erroneous judgment.
Ibid. The stringency of the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard bespeaks the "weight and gravity" of the private interest affected, id. at 427, society's interest in avoiding erroneous convictions, and a judgment that those interests together require that "society impos[e] almost the entire risk of error upon itself." Id. at 424. See also In re Winship, 397 U.S. at 372 (Harlan, J., concurring).
minimum requirements [of procedural due process] being a matter of federal law, they are not diminished by the fact that the State may have specified its own procedures that it may deem adequate for determining the preconditions to adverse official action.
Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480, 491 (1980). See also Logan v. Zimmerman Brush Co., ante at 432. Moreover, the degree of proof required in a particular type of proceeding "is the kind of question which has [p756] traditionally been left to the judiciary to resolve." Woodby v. INS, 385 U.S. 276, 284 (1966). [n8]
In cases involving individual rights, whether criminal or civil, "[t]he standard of proof [at a minimum] reflects the value society places on individual liberty."
Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. at 425, quoting Tippett v. Maryland, 436 F.2d 1153, 1166 (CA4 1971) (opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part), cert. dism'd sub nom. Murel v. Baltimore City Criminal Court, 407 U.S. 355 (1972).
This Court has mandated an intermediate standard of proof -- "clear and convincing evidence" -- when the individual interests at stake in a state proceeding are both "particularly important" and "more substantial than mere loss of money." Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. at 424. Notwithstanding "the state's ‘civil labels and good intentions,'" id. at 427, quoting In re Winship, 397 U.S. at 365-366, the Court has deemed this level of certainty necessary to preserve fundamental fairness in a variety of government-initiated proceedings that threaten the individual involved with "a significant deprivation of liberty" or "stigma." 441 U.S. at 425, 426. See, e.g., Addington v. Texas, supra, (civil commitment); Woodby v. INS, 385 U.S. at 285 (deportation); Chaunt v. United States, 364 U.S. 350, 353 (1960) (denaturalization); [p757] Schneiderman v. United States, 320 U.S. 118, 125, 159 (1943) (denaturalization).
In Lassiter, to be sure, the Court held that fundamental fairness may be maintained in parental rights termination proceedings even when some procedures are mandated only on a case-by-case basis, rather than through rules of general application. 452 U.S. at 31-32 (natural parent's right to court-appointed counsel should be determined by the trial court, subject to appellate review). But this Court never has approved case-by-case determination of the proper standard of proof for a given proceeding. Standards of proof, like other
procedural due process rules[,] are shaped by the risk of error inherent in the truthfinding process as applied to the generality of cases, not the rare exceptions.
Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. at 344 (emphasis added). Since the litigants and the factfinder must know at the outset of a given proceeding how the risk of error will be allocated, the standard of proof necessarily must be calibrated in advance. Retrospective case-by-case review cannot preserve fundamental fairness when a class of proceedings is governed by a constitutionally defective evidentiary standard. [n9] [p758]
In parental rights termination proceedings, the private interest affected is commanding; the risk of error from using a preponderance standard is substantial; and the countervailing governmental interest favoring that standard is comparatively slight. Evaluation of the three Eldridge factors compels the conclusion that use of a "fair preponderance of the evidence" standard in such proceedings is inconsistent with due process.
The extent to which procedural due process must be afforded the recipient is influenced by the extent to which he may be "condemned to suffer grievous loss."
Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 262-263 (1970), quoting Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee v. McGrath, 341 U.S. 123, 168 (1951) (Frankfurter, J., concurring). Whether the loss threatened by a particular type of proceeding is sufficiently grave to warrant more than average certainty on the part of the factfinder turns on both the nature of the private interest threatened and the permanency of the threatened loss.
Lassiter declared it "plain beyond the need for multiple citation" that a natural parent's "desire for, and right to, ‘the companionship, care, custody, and management of his or her children'" is an interest far more precious than any property [p759] right. 452 U.S. at 27, quoting Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. at 651. When the State initiates a parental rights termination proceeding, it seeks not merely to infringe that fundamental liberty interest, but to end it.
If the State prevails, it will have worked a unique kind of deprivation. . . . A parent's interest in the accuracy and justice of the decision to terminate his or her parental status is, therefore, a commanding one.
452 U.S. at 27.
In government-initiated proceedings to determine juvenile delinquency, In re Winship, supra; civil commitment, Addington v. Texas, supra; deportation, Woodby v. INS, supra; and denaturalization, Chaunt v. United States, supra, and Schneiderman v. United States, supra, this Court has identified losses of individual liberty sufficiently serious to warrant imposition of an elevated burden of proof. Yet juvenile delinquency adjudications, civil commitment, deportation, and denaturalization, at least to a degree, are all reversible official actions. Once affirmed on appeal, a New York decision terminating parental rights is final and irrevocable. See n. 1, supra. Few forms of state action are both so severe and so irreversible.
Thus, the first Eldridge factor -- the private interest affected -- weighs heavily against use of the preponderance standard at a state-initiated permanent neglect proceeding. We do not deny that the child and his foster parents are also deeply interested in the outcome of that contest. But at the factfinding stage of the New York proceeding, the focus emphatically is not on them.
The factfinding does not purport -- and is not intended -- to balance the child's interest in a normal family home against the parents' interest in raising the child. Nor does it purport to determine whether the natural parents or the foster parents would provide the better home. Rather, the factfinding hearing pits the State directly against the parents. The State alleges that the natural parents are at fault. Fam.Ct.Act § 614.1.(d). The questions disputed and decided are [p760] what the State did -- "made diligent efforts," § 614.1.(c) -- and what the natural parents did not do -- "maintain contact with or plan for the future of the child." § 614.1.(d). The State marshals an array of public resources to prove its case and disprove the parents' case. Victory by the State not only makes termination of parental rights possible; it entails a judicial determination that the parents are unfit to raise their own children. [n10]
At the factfinding, the State cannot presume that a child and his parents are adversaries. After the State has established parental unfitness at that initial proceeding, the court may assume at the dispositional stage that the interests of the child and the natural parents do diverge. See Fam.Ct.Act § 631 (judge shall make his order "solely on the basis of the best interests of the child," and thus has no obligation to consider the natural parents' rights in selecting dispositional alternatives). But until the State proves parental unfitness, the child and his parents share a vital interest in preventing erroneous termination of their natural relationship. [n11] Thus, [p761] at the factfinding, the interests of the child and his natural parents coincide to favor use of error-reducing procedures.
However substantial the foster parents' interests may be, cf. Smith v. Organization of Foster Families, 431 U.S. at 845-847, they are not implicated directly in the factfinding stage of a state-initiated permanent neglect proceeding against the natural parents. If authorized, the foster parents may pit their interests directly against those of the natural parents by initiating their own permanent neglect proceeding. Fam.Ct.Act § 1055(d); Soc.Serv.Law §§ 3846.3(b), 392.7.(c). Alternatively, the foster parents can make their case for custody at the dispositional stage of a state-initiated proceeding, where the judge already has decided the issue of permanent neglect and is focusing on the placement that would serve the child's best interests. Fam.Ct.Act §§ 623, 631. For the foster parents, the State's failure to prove permanent neglect may prolong the delay and uncertainty until their foster child is freed for adoption. But for the natural parents, a finding of permanent neglect can cut off forever their rights in their child. Given this disparity of consequence, we have no difficulty finding that the balance of private interests strongly favors heightened procedural protections.
Under Mathews v. Eldridge, we next must consider both the risk of erroneous deprivation of private interests resulting from use of a "fair preponderance" standard and the likelihood that a higher evidentiary standard would reduce that risk. See 424 U.S. at 335. Since the factfinding phase of a permanent neglect proceeding is an adversary contest between the State and the natural parents, the relevant question is whether a preponderance standard fairly allocates the risk of an erroneous factfinding between these two parties. [p762]
In New York, the factfinding stage of a state-initiated permanent neglect proceeding bears many of the indicia of a criminal trial. Cf. Lassiter v. Department of Social Services, 452 U.S. at 42-44 (first dissenting opinion); Meltzer v. C. Buck LeCraw & Co., 402 U.S. 954, 959 (1971) (Black, J., dissenting from denial of certiorari). See also dissenting opinion, post at 777-779 (describing procedures employed at factfinding proceeding). The Commissioner of Social Services charges the parents with permanent neglect. They are served by summons. Fam.Ct.Act §§ 614, 616, 617. The factfinding hearing is conducted pursuant to formal rules of evidence. § 624. The State, the parents, and the child are all represented by counsel. §§ 249, 262. The State seeks to establish a series of historical facts about the intensity of its agency's efforts to reunite the family, the infrequency and insubstantiality of the parents' contacts with their child, and the parents' inability or unwillingness to formulate a plan for the child's future. The attorneys submit documentary evidence, and call witnesses who are subject to cross-examination. Based on all the evidence, the judge then determines whether the State has proved the statutory elements of permanent neglect by a fair preponderance of the evidence. § 622.
At such a proceeding, numerous factors combine to magnify the risk of erroneous factfinding. Permanent neglect proceedings employ imprecise substantive standards that leave determinations unusually open to the subjective values of the judge. See Smith v. Organization of Foster Families, 431 U.S. at 835, n. 36. In appraising the nature and quality of a complex series of encounters among the agency, the parents, and the child, the court possesses unusual discretion to underweigh probative facts that might favor the parent. [n12] [p763] Because parents subject to termination proceedings are often poor, uneducated, or members of minority groups, id. at 833-835, such proceedings are often vulnerable to judgments based on cultural or class bias.
The State's ability to assemble its case almost inevitably dwarfs the parents' ability to mount a defense. No predetermined limits restrict the sums an agency may spend in prosecuting a given termination proceeding. The State's attorney usually will be expert on the issues contested and the procedures employed at the factfinding hearing, and enjoys full access to all public records concerning the family. The State may call on experts in family relations, psychology, and medicine to bolster its case. Furthermore, the primary witnesses at the hearing will be the agency's own professional caseworkers, whom the State has empowered both to investigate the family situation and to testify against the parents. Indeed, because the child is already in agency custody, the State even has the power to shape the historical events that form the basis for termination. [n13] [p764]
The disparity between the adversaries' litigation resources is matched by a striking asymmetry in their litigation options. Unlike criminal defendants, natural parents have no "double jeopardy" defense against repeated state termination efforts. If the State initially fails to win termination, as New York did here, see n. 4, supra, it always can try once again to cut off the parents' rights after gathering more or better evidence. Yet even when the parents have attained the level of fitness required by the State, they have no similar means by which they can forestall future termination efforts.
Coupled with a "fair preponderance of the evidence" standard, these factors create a significant prospect of erroneous termination. A standard of proof that, by its very terms, demands consideration of the quantity, rather than the quality, of the evidence may misdirect the factfinder in the marginal case. See In re Winship, 397 U.S. at 371, n. 3 (Harlan, J., concurring). Given the weight of the private interests at stake, the social cost of even occasional error is sizable.
Raising the standard of proof would have both practical and symbolic consequences. Cf. Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. at 426. The Court has long considered the heightened standard of proof used in criminal prosecutions to be "a prime instrument for reducing the risk of convictions resting on factual error." In re Winship, 397 U.S. at 363. An elevated standard of proof in a parental rights termination proceeding would alleviate
the possible risk that a factfinder might decide to [deprive] an individual based solely on a few isolated instances of unusual conduct [or] . . . idiosyncratic behavior.
Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. at 427.
Increasing the burden of proof is one way to impress the factfinder with the importance [p765] of the decision, and thereby perhaps to reduce the chances that inappropriate
terminations will be ordered. Ibid.
The Appellate Division approved New York's preponderance standard on the ground that it properly "balanced rights possessed by the child . . . with those of the natural parents. . . ." 75 App.Div.2d at 910, 427 N.Y.S.2d at 320. By so saying, the court suggested that a preponderance standard properly allocates the risk of error between the parents and the child. [n14] That view is fundamentally mistaken.
The court's theory assumes that termination of the natural parents' rights invariably will benefit the child. [n15] Yet we have noted above that the parents and the child share an interest in avoiding erroneous termination. Even accepting the court's assumption, we cannot agree with its conclusion that a preponderance standard fairly distributes the risk of error between parent and child. Use of that standard reflects the judgment that society is nearly neutral between erroneous termination of parental rights and erroneous failure to terminate those rights. Cf. In re Winship, 397 U.S. at 371 (Harlan, J., concurring). For the child, the likely consequence of an erroneous failure to terminate is preservation of [p766] an uneasy status quo. [n16] For the natural parents, however, the consequence of an erroneous termination is the unnecessary destruction of their natural family. A standard that allocates the risk of error nearly equally between those two outcomes does not reflect properly their relative severity.
Two state interests are at stake in parental rights termination proceedings -- a parens patriae interest in preserving and promoting the welfare of the child and a fiscal and administrative interest in reducing the cost and burden of such proceedings. A standard of proof more strict than preponderance of the evidence is consistent with both interests.
"Since the State has an urgent interest in the welfare of the child, it shares the parent's interest in an accurate and just decision" at the factfinding proceeding. Lassiter v. Department of Social Services, 452 U.S. at 27. As parens patriae, the State's goal is to provide the child with a permanent home. See Soc.Serv.Law § 384-b.1.(a)(i) (statement of legislative findings and intent). Yet while there is still reason to believe that positive, nurturing parent-child relationships exist, the parens patriae interest favors preservation, not [p767] severance, of natural familial bonds. [n17] § 384-b.1.(a)(ii). "[T]he State registers no gain towards its declared goals when it separates children from the custody of fit parents." Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. at 652.
The State's interest in finding the child an alternative permanent home arises only "when it is clear that the natural parent cannot or will not provide a normal family home for the child." Soc.Serv.Law § 384-b.1.(a)(iv) (emphasis added). At the factfinding, that goal is served by procedures that promote an accurate determination of whether the natural parents can and will provide a normal home.
Unlike a constitutional requirement of hearings, see, e.g., Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. at 347, or court-appointed counsel, a stricter standard of proof would reduce factual error without imposing substantial fiscal burdens upon the State. As we have observed, 35 States already have adopted a higher standard by statute or court decision without apparent effect on the speed, form, or cost of their factfinding proceedings. See n. 3, supra.
Nor would an elevated standard of proof create any real administrative burdens for the State's factfinders. New York Family Court judges already are familiar with a higher evidentiary standard in other parental rights termination proceedings not involving permanent neglect. See Soc.Serv.Law §§ 384-b.3.(g), 384-b.4.(c), and 384-b.4.(e) (requiring "clear and convincing proof" before parental rights may be terminated for reasons of mental illness and mental retardation or severe and repeated child abuse). New York also demands at least clear and convincing evidence in proceedings of far less moment than parental rights termination proceedings. See, e.g., N.Y.Veh. & Traf.Law § 227.1 (McKinney Supp.1981) (requiring the State to prove traffic [p768] infractions by "clear and convincing evidence") and In re Rosenthal v. Hartnett, 36 N.Y.2d 269 326 N.E.2d 811 (1975); see also Ross v. Food Specialties, Inc., 6 N.Y.2d 336, 341, 160 N.E.2d 618, 620 (1959) (requiring "clear, positive and convincing evidence" for contract reformation). We cannot believe that it would burden the State unduly to require that its factfinders have the same factual certainty when terminating the parent-child relationship as they must have to suspend a driver's license.
The logical conclusion of this balancing process is that the "fair preponderance of the evidence" standard prescribed by Fam.Ct.Act § 622 violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. [n18] The Court noted in Addington:
The individual should not be asked to share equally with society the risk of error when the possible injury to the individual is significantly greater than any possible harm to the state.
441 U.S. at 427. Thus, at a parental rights termination proceeding, a near-equal allocation of risk between the parents and the State is constitutionally intolerable. The next question, then, is whether a "beyond a reasonable doubt" or a "clear and convincing" standard is constitutionally mandated.
In Addington, the Court concluded that application of a reasonable doubt standard is inappropriate in civil commitment proceedings for two reasons -- because of our hesitation to apply that unique standard "too broadly or casually in noncriminal cases," id. at 428, and because the psychiatric evidence ordinarily adduced at commitment proceedings is [p769] rarely susceptible to proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 429-430, 432-433. To be sure, as has been noted above, in the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, Pub.L. 9508, § 102(f), 92 Stat. 3072, 25 U.S.C. § 1912(f) (1976 ed., Supp. IV), Congress requires "evidence beyond a reasonable doubt" for termination of Indian parental rights, reasoning that "the removal of a child from the parents is a penalty as great [as], if not greater, than a criminal penalty. . . ." H.R.Rep. No. 95-1386, p. 22 (1978). Congress did not consider, however, the evidentiary problems that would arise if proof beyond a reasonable doubt were required in all state-initiated parental rights termination hearings.
Like civil commitment hearings, termination proceedings often require the factfinder to evaluate medical and psychiatric testimony, and to decide issues difficult to prove to a level of absolute certainty, such as lack of parental motive, absence of affection between parent and child, and failure of parental foresight and progress. Cf. Lassiter v. Department of Social Services, 452 U.S. at 30; id. at 44-46 (first dissenting opinion) (describing issues raised in state termination proceedings). The substantive standards applied vary from State to State. Although Congress found a "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard proper in one type of parental rights termination case, another legislative body might well conclude that a reasonable doubt standard would erect an unreasonable barrier to state efforts to free permanently neglected children for adoption.
A majority of the States have concluded that a "clear and convincing evidence" standard of proof strikes a fair balance between the rights of the natural parents and the State's legitimate concerns. See n. 3, supra. We hold that such a standard adequately conveys to the factfinder the level of subjective certainty about his factual conclusions necessary to satisfy due process. We further hold that determination of the precise burden equal to or greater than that standard [p770] is a matter of state law properly left to state legislatures and state courts. Cf. Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. at 433.
We, of course, express no view on the merits of petitioners' claims. [n19] At a hearing conducted under a constitutionally proper standard, they may or may not prevail. Without deciding the outcome under any of the standards we have approved, we vacate the judgment of the Appellate Division and remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
1. At oral argument, counsel for petitioners asserted that, in New York, natural parents have no means of restoring terminated parental rights. Tr. of Oral Arg. 9. Counsel for respondents, citing Fam.Ct.Act § 1061, answered that parents may petition the Family Court to vacate or set aside an earlier order on narrow grounds, such as newly discovered evidence or fraud. Tr. of Oral Arg. 26. Counsel for respondents conceded, however that this statutory provision has never been invoked to set aside a permanent neglect finding. Id. at 27.
2. Most notably, natural parents have a statutory right to the assistance of counsel and of court-appointed counsel if they are indigent. Fam.Ct.Act § 262.(a)(iii).
3. Fifteen States, by statute, have required "clear and convincing evidence" or its equivalent. See Alaska Stat.Ann. § 47.10.080(c)(3) (1980); Cal.Civ.Code Ann. § 232(a)(7) (West Supp.1982); Ga.Code §§ 24A-2201(c), 24A-3201 (1979); Iowa Code § 600A.8 (1981) ("clear and convincing proof"); Me.Rev.Stat.Ann., Tit. 22, § 4055.1.B.(2) (Supp. 1981-1982); Mich.Comp.Laws § 722.25 (Supp. 1981-1982); Mo.Rev.Stat. § 211.447.2(2) (Supp.1981) ("clear, cogent and convincing evidence"); N.M.Stat.Ann. § 40-7-4.J. (Supp.1981); N.C.Gen.Stat. § 7A-289.30(e) (1981) ("clear, cogent, and convincing evidence"); Ohio Rev.Code Ann. §§ 2151.35, 2151.414(B) (Page Supp. 1982); R.I.Gen.Laws § 15-7-7(d) (Supp. 1980); Tenn.Code Ann. § 37-246(d) (Supp. 1981); Va.Code § 16.1-283.B (Supp. 1981); W.Va.Code § 492(c) (1980) ("clear and convincing proof"); Wis.Stat. § 48.31(1) (Supp. 1981-1982).
Fifteen States, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands, by court decision, have required "clear and convincing evidence" or its equivalent. See Dale County Dept. of Pensions & Security v. Robles, 368 So.2d 39, 42 (Ala.Civ.App.1979); Harper v. Caskin, 265 Ark. 558, 560-561, 580 S.W.2d 176, 178 (1979); In re J.S.R., 374 A.2d 860, 864 (D.C.1977); Torres v. Van Eepoel, 98 So.2d 735, 737 (Fla.1957); In re Kerns, 225 Kan. 746, 753, 594 P.2d 187, 193 (1979); In re Rosenbloom, 266 N.W.2d 888, 889 (Minn.1978) ("clear and convincing proof "); In re J.L.B., 182 Mont. 100, 116-117, 594 P.2d 1127, 1136 (1979); In re Souza, 204 Neb. 503, 510, 283 N.W.2d 48, 52 (1979); J. v. M., 157 N.J.Super. 478, 489, 385 A.2d 240, 246 (App.Div.1978); In re J. A., 283 N.W.2d 83, 92 (N.D.1979); In re Darren Todd H., 615 P.2d 287, 289 (Okla.1980); In re William. L., 477 Pa. 322, 332, 383 A.2d 1228, 1233, cert. denied sub nom. Lehman v. Lycoming County Children's Services, 439 U.S. 880 (1978); In re G.M., 596 S.W.2d 846, 847 (Tex.1980); In re Pitts, 535 P.2d 1244, 1248 (Utah 1975); In re Maria, 15 V.I. 368, 384 (1978); In re Sego, 82 Wash.2d 736, 739, 513 P.2d 831, 833 (1973) ("clear, cogent, and convincing evidence"); In re X., 607 P.2d 911, 919 (Wyo.1980) ("clear and unequivocal").
South Dakota's Supreme Court has required a "clear preponderance" of the evidence in a dependency proceeding. See In re B.E., 287 N.W.2d 91, 96 (1979). Two States, New Hampshire and Louisiana, have barred parental rights terminations unless the key allegations have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. See State v. Robert H., 118 N.H. 713, 716, 393 A.2d 1387, 1389 (1978); La.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 13:1603.A (West Supp.1982). Two States, Illinois and New York, have required clear and convincing evidence, but only in certain types of parental rights termination proceedings. See Ill.Rev.Stat., ch. 37, ¶¶ 705-9(2), (3) (1979), amended by Act of Sept. 11, 1981, 1982 Ill. Laws, P.A. 82-437 (generally requiring a preponderance of the evidence, but requiring clear and convincing evidence to terminate the rights of minor parents and mentally ill or mentally deficient parents); N.Y.Soc.Serv.Law §§ 384-b.3(g), 384-b.4(c), and 384-b.4(e) (Supp.1981-1982) (requiring "clear and convincing proof" before parental rights may be terminated for reasons of mental illness and mental retardation or severe and repeated child abuse).
So far as we are aware, only two federal courts have addressed the issue. Each has held that allegations supporting parental rights termination must be proved by clear and convincing evidence. Sims v. State Dept. of Public Welfare, 438 F.Supp. 1179, 1194 (SD Tex.1977), rev'd on other grounds sub nom. Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415 (1979); Alsager v. District Court of Polk County, 406 F.Supp. 10, 25 (SD Iowa 1975), aff'd on other grounds, 545 F.2d 1137 (CA8 1976).
4. Respondent had made an earlier and unsuccessful termination effort in September, 1976. After a factfinding hearing, the Family Court Judge dismissed respondent's petition for failure to prove an essential element of Fam.Ct.Act § 614.1.(d). See In re Santosky, 89 Misc.2d 730, 393 N.Y.S.2d 486 (1977). The New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, affirmed, finding that "the record as a whole" revealed that petitioners had "substantially planned for the future of the children." In re John W., 63 App.Div.2d 750, 751, 404 N.Y.S.2d 717, 719 (1978).
5. Since respondent Kramer took custody of Tina, John III, and Jed, the Santoskys have had two other children, James and Jeremy. The State has taken no action to remove these younger children. At oral argument, counsel for respondents replied affirmatively when asked whether he was asserting that petitioners were "unfit to handle the three older ones, but not unfit to handle the two younger ones." Tr. of Oral Arg. 24.
6. Petitioners initially had sought review in the New York Court of Appeals. That court sua sponte transferred the appeal to the Appellate Division, Third Department, stating that a direct appeal did not lie because "questions other than the constitutional validity of a statutory provision are involved." App. 50.
7. We therefore reject respondent Kramer's claim that a parental rights termination proceeding does not interfere with a fundamental liberty interest. See Brief for Respondent Kramer 11-18; Tr. of Oral Arg. 38. The fact that important liberty interests of the child and its foster parents may also be affected by a permanent neglect proceeding does not justify denying the natural parents constitutionally adequate procedures. Nor can the State refuse to provide natural parents adequate procedural safeguards on the ground that the family unit already has broken down; that is the very issue the permanent neglect proceeding is meant to decide.
8. The dissent charges, post at 772, n. 2, that
this Court simply has no role in establishing the standards of proof that States must follow in the various judicial proceedings they afford to their citizens.
As the dissent properly concedes, however, the Court must examine a State's chosen standard to determine whether it satisfies "the constitutional minimum of ‘fundamental fairness.'" Ibid. See, e.g., Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418, 427, 433 (1979) (unanimous decision of participating Justices) (Fourteenth Amendment requires at least clear and convincing evidence in a civil proceeding brought under state law to commit an individual involuntarily for an indefinite period to a state mental hospital); In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970) (Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the accused in state proceeding against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged).
9. For this reason, we reject the suggestions of respondents and the dissent that the constitutionality of New York's statutory procedures must be evaluated as a "package." See Tr. of Oral Arg. 25, 36, 38. Indeed, we would rewrite our precedents were we to excuse a constitutionally defective standard of proof based on an amorphous assessment of the "cumulative effect" of state procedures. In the criminal context, for example, the Court has never assumed that "strict substantive standards or special procedures compensate for a lower burden of proof. . . ." Post at 773. See In re Winship, 397 U.S. at 368. Nor has the Court treated appellate review as a curative for an inadequate burden of proof. See Woodby v. INS, 385 U.S. 276, 282 (1966) ("judicial review is generally limited to ascertaining whether the evidence relied upon by the trier of fact was of sufficient quality and substantiality to support the rationality of the judgment") .
As the dissent points out, "the standard of proof is a crucial component of legal process, the primary function of which is ‘to minimize the risk of erroneous decisions.'" Post at 785, quoting Greenholtz v. Nebraska Penal Inmates, 442 U.S. 1, 13 (1979). Notice, summons, right to counsel, rules of evidence, and evidentiary hearings are all procedures to place information before the factfinder. But only the standard of proof "instruct[s] the factfinder concerning the degree of confidence our society thinks he should have in the correctness of factual conclusions" he draws from that information. In re Winship, 397 U.S. at 370 (Harlan, J., concurring). The statutory provision of right to counsel and multiple hearings before termination cannot suffice to protect a natural parent's fundamental liberty interests if the State is willing to tolerate undue uncertainty in the determination of the dispositive facts.
10. The Family Court Judge in the present case expressly refused to terminate petitioners' parental rights on a "non-statutory, no-fault basis." App. 22-29. Nor is it clear that the State constitutionally could terminate a parent's rights without showing parental unfitness. See Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246, 255 (1978) ("We have little doubt that the Due Process Clause would be offended ‘[i]f a State were to attempt to force the breakup of a natural family, over the objections of the parents and their children, without some showing of unfitness and for the sole reason that to do so was thought to be in the children's best interest,'" quoting Smith v. Organization of Foster Families, 431 U.S. 816, 862-863 (1977) (Stewart, J., concurring in judgment)).
11. For a child, the consequences of termination of his natural parents' rights may well be far-reaching. In Colorado, for example, it has been noted:
The child loses the right of support and maintenance, for which he may thereafter be dependent upon society; the right to inherit; and all other rights inherent in the legal parent-child relationship, not just for [a limited] period . . . , but forever.
In re K.S., 33 Colo. App. 72, 76, 515 P.2d 130, 133 (1973).
Some losses cannot be measured. In this case, for example, Jed Santosky was removed from his natural parents' custody when he was only three days old; the judge's finding of permanent neglect effectively foreclosed the possibility that Jed would ever know his natural parents.
12. For example, a New York court appraising an agency's "diligent efforts" to provide the parents with social services can excuse efforts not made on the grounds that they would have been "detrimental to the best interests of the child." Fam.Ct.Act § 614.l.(c). In determining whether the parent "substantially and continuously or repeatedly" failed to "maintain contact with . . . the child," § 614.1.(d), the judge can discount actual visits or communications on the grounds that they were insubstantial or "overtly demonstrat[ed] a lack of affectionate and concerned parenthood." Soc.Serv.Law § 384-b.7.(b). When determining whether the parent planned for the child's future, the judge can reject as unrealistic plans based on overly optimistic estimates of physical or financial ability. § 384-b.7.(c). See also dissenting opinion, post at 779-780, nn. 8 and 9.
13. In this case, for example, the parents claim that the State sought court orders denying them the right to visit their children, which would have prevented them from maintaining the contact required by Fam.Ct.Act. § 614.1.(d). See Brief for Petitioners 9. The parents further claim that the State cited their rejection of social services they found offensive or superfluous as proof of the agency's "diligent efforts" and their own "failure to plan" for the children's future. Id. at 10-11.
We need not accept these statements as true to recognize that the State's unusual ability to structure the evidence increases the risk of an erroneous factfinding. Of course, the disparity between the litigants' resources will be vastly greater in States where there is no statutory right to court-appointed counsel. See Lassiter v. Department of Social Services, 452 U.S. 18, 34 (1981) (only 33 States and the District of Columbia provide that right by statute).
14. The dissent makes a similar claim. See post at 786-791.
15. This is a hazardous assumption, at best. Even when a child's natural home is imperfect, permanent removal from that home will not necessarily improve his welfare. See, e.g., Wald, State Intervention on Behalf of "Neglected" Children: A Search for Realistic Standards, 27 Stan.L.Rev. 985, 993 (1975) ("In fact, under current practice, coercive intervention frequently results in placing a child in a more detrimental situation than he would be in without intervention").
Nor does termination of parental rights necessarily ensure adoption. See Brief for Community Action for Legal Services, Inc., et al. as Amici Curiae 22-23. Even when a child eventually finds an adoptive family, he may spend years moving between state institutions and "temporary" foster placements after his ties to his natural parents have been severed. See Smith v. Organization of Foster Families, 431 U.S. at 833-838 (describing the "limbo" of the New York foster care system).
16. When the termination proceeding occurs, the child is not living at his natural home. A child cannot be adjudicated "permanently neglected" until, "for a period of more than one year," he has been in "the care of an authorized agency." Soc.Serv.Law § 384-b.7.(a); Fam.Ct.Act § 614. l.(d). See also dissenting opinion, post at 789-790.
Under New York law, a judge has ample discretion to ensure that, once removed from his natural parents on grounds of neglect, a child will not return to a hostile environment. In this case, when the State's initial termination effort failed for lack of proof, see n. 4, supra, the court simply issued orders under Fam.Ct.Act § 1055(b) extending the period of the child's foster home placement. See App.19-20. See also Fam.Ct.Act § 632(b) (when State's permanent neglect petition is dismissed for insufficient evidence, judge retains jurisdiction to reconsider underlying orders of placement); § 633 (judge may suspend judgment at dispositional hearing for an additional year).
17. Any parens patriae interest in terminating the natural parents' rights arises only at the dispositional phase, after the parents have been found unfit.
18. The dissent's claim that today's decision "will inevitably lead to the federalization of family law," post at 773, is, of course, vastly overstated. As the dissent properly notes, the Court's duty to "refrai[n] from interfering with state answers to domestic relations questions" has never required "that the Court should blink at clear constitutional violations in state statutes." Post at 771.
19. Unlike the dissent, we carefully refrain from accepting as the "facts of this case" findings that are not part of the record, and that have been found only to be more likely true than not.