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Supreme Court grants termination of parental rights, finding mother’s failure to support was “willful”

In SCDSS v. M. R. C. L., 393 S.C. 387, 712 S.E.2d 452 (2011), it took the South Carolina Supreme Court less than a year to reverse the Court of Appeals’ opinion, 390 S.C. 329, 701 S.E.2d 757 (Ct. App. 2010), which itself reversed a family court grant of termination of parental right against a mother whom the family court found has both wilfully failed to visit and wilfully failed to support her child.  While the Court of Appeals found neither failure was willful, the Supreme Court found the failure to support was willful.

S.C.Code Ann. § 63-7-2570(4), allows termination of parental rights when:

The child has lived outside the home of either parent for a period of six months, and during that time the parent has wilfully failed to support the child. Failure to support means that the parent has failed to make a material contribution to the child’s care. A material contribution consists of either financial contributions according to the parent’s means or contributions of food, clothing, shelter, or other necessities for the care of the child according to the parent’s means. The court may consider all relevant circumstances in determining whether or not the parent has wilfully failed to support the child, including requests for support by the custodian and the ability of the parent to provide support.

I found the Court of Appeal’s determination that mother’s failure to support her child wasn’t willful to be somewhat inexplicable.  The Court of Appeals held that mother’s providing toys, food, clothes, diapers, wipes, medication, and lotion during her visits was sufficient support to defeat a finding of willful failure of support and that mother’s failure to complete South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation (SCVR) shouldn’t matter because vocational rehabilitation didn’t provide employment.  In reversing, the Supreme Court held:

We disagree with the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that mother’s failure to complete the SCVR program does not serve as evidence that her failure to support child was willful.  The Court of Appeals correctly notes mother’s completion of the program would not have guaranteed mother an income, but would have only served to make her a more desirable candidate for employment.  However, mother’s failure to increase her chances of finding employment by taking advantage of the SCVR program or undertaking an effort to earn her GED manifests her indifference to child and her intention to forego parental responsibilities.  Over the course of fifteen months mother had to complete the program, she only attended a few classes.  Mother’s only excuse for not completing the program was that she had transportation issues, but she could have been provided with transportation.

Further, there is evidence mother had the means to provide child with some financial support, but chose to spend that money on other items.  Namely, mother continued to pay an estimated fifty dollars per month to care for her dogs during the seventeen-month span child was in foster care.  This monthly expense constituted a large sum of money mother could have instead provided child.

Many folks had been reading the Court of Appeals opinion in M. R. C. L. as holding that any support an unemployed parent provided his or her child is sufficient to defeat a finding of willful failure to support.  The Supreme Court’s per curium opinion holds such parents to a higher standard.

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