IV. Snapshots of Termination in Rural Places

Article excerpt

Many realities of rural living and the accompanying socioeconomic, structural, and spatial hurdles described in Part III weigh against parents in termination proceedings. A parent's residence in a rural place can play a significant role in termination proceedings. Even when courts are cognizant of these realities, they may nevertheless make harsh judgments of parents.

The Iowa Court of Appeals, for example, found a mother unable to "act in the best interests of her children," because she was "living in a trailer park in a rural area, isolated from services, shopping or neighborhood resources." (131) Further, the court noted, the mother "had no transportation and there was nothing within walking distance." (132) The court suggested that the mother was at fault because she lived in a rural place without services. (133) Missing from the court's narrative was any acknowledgement that she presumably had limited housing alternatives, if any at all. in this case and other cases detailed below, courts use rurality against parents, citing inadequacies associated with their rural circumstances as reasons for terminating parental rights.

Just as cases like the Iowa decision reveal judgments of rurality, they also reveal judgments about class and, in particular, poverty. Cases discussed in the following Parts illustrate how poverty and rurality get collapsed in the judgments that child welfare agencies and courts make about the fitness of poor rural families. They also illustrate some courts' insensitivity to rural realities that often are beyond parents' control.

A. Housing

Rural residents, particularly renters, are more likely than their urban counterparts to live in substandard housing, (134) and rural homelessness is a growing problem. (135) In 2009, 1.5 million rural homes (5.4%) were substandard. (136) Among rural households in poverty, the incidence of substandard housing is more than twice the national rate, (137) and the volume of suitable rental housing is declining. (138) Rural minority communities, among the "worst housed groups in the entire nation," (139) face particularly high levels of substandard living. (140) Characteristics of substandard housing may include structural or design defects; lack of utilities or facilities such as running water or proper heating systems; and substantial deterioration. (141) Courts vary in their attitude toward such circumstances. (142)

Several courts have held that substandard housing is not a legally sufficient basis for removing a child from a parent's care. (143) The Arkansas Supreme Court, for example, found in 1979 that a statute allowing termination where the parents are unable to provide a "proper home" for the child was unconstitutionally vague under both the U.S. and Arkansas Constitutions. (144) The court held that the term "proper home" was subject to "such a wide latitude for interpretation that its meaning would vary widely among judges, who, like other human beings, can only see things through their own eyes." (145) The court opined that the term "proper home" failed to provide guidelines sufficient to inform a parent of his or her obligations to the child. (146) The same might be said of many of the standards applied in removal and termination proceedings.

In a similar vein to the Arkansas decision, the California Court of Appeal held in an unpublished 2008 opinion that a father's inability to afford housing was an insufficient basis for terminating his rights:

   DCFS may not bootstrap the fact that Gerardo was too poor to afford
   housing, which would not have served as a legitimate ground for
   removing the boys in the first place, to support findings of
   detriment, all of which flow directly from the circumstances of
   Gerardo's poverty and his concomitant willingness to leave his sons
   in his family's care while he stayed close, maintained familial
   ties and worked to raise rent money. (147)

These decisions illustrate some courts' diligence in distinguishing between the consequences of parents' socioeconomic situations and their parental fitness. …