PIERRE (AP) – The South Dakota Supreme Court has ruled that a state judge and the Department of Social Services failed to consider improvements in a mother's parenting skills and living conditions before terminating her rights to her child.
The high court this week reversed a ruling by Circuit Judge Jon Erickson that assigned the toddler to the care of a relative and sent the case back to Beadle County for further action, KELO-TV reported.
The Supreme Court said that because the girl was born to an American Indian mother, the state had a heightened responsibility for reunification under the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law that governs jurisdiction over the removal of Native American children from their families in custody, foster care and adoption cases.
The girl was born in September 2017 and Social Services began working with the mother and father on a safety plan for the child the following July.
The toddler was placed in the protective custody of a relative in October 2018 after the agency deemed her living conditions with her parents was unsafe, that she was left unsupervised or alone for extended periods of time and that the couple illegally used drugs in the home.
In June 2019 review, the agency reported that the mother had stopped using marijuana and had separated from the father. In September the same year, the agency reported that the mother said she was still sober, was living with her boyfriend and the two were attending parenting classes together.
A behavioral analyst who began working with the mother in October 2019 reported that the home where the woman was living was “100% better than before” and that she observed a loving bond between mother and daughter. The counselor noted that the woman had moved in with her mother.
Nevertheless, Social Services moved ahead with termination of parental rights.
Erickson acknowledged that the mother had made some improvements, but not enough, and said she failed to show she could provide for the child’s basic needs. He ordered the termination of parental rights.
In overturning that ruling, the Supreme Court said the Department of Social Services is required to actively take the parent through the steps of his or her case plan to prepare the parent for reunification, and didn't provide remedial or rehabilitative programs. The agency failed to do that from December 2019 to September 2020, the court determined.
Justices also said the lower court judge should have appointed a lawyer to represent the child.