In Detroit, Michigan, Mitchelle Blair and the fathers of her two children are facing a petition to terminate parental rights with respect to Blair’s 17-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. A judge in Wayne County Circuit Court is expected to rule on the petition to terminate on June 30th.
Blair’s case has drawn national news coverage due to the graphic reasons why the Court sought to terminate parental rights. During an eviction of Blair’s rental property on March 24, 2015, authorities discovered the bodies of Blair’s two deceased children, 13-year-old Stoni Blair and 9-year-old Stephen Berry, in a deep freezer. A coroner's report indicates that Stoni Blair was killed in August 2012 and Stephen Berry in May, 2013, each with numerous findings of burns and other abuses. Neither father reported seeing his child for approximately two years prior to their death. Blair was charged with the murder of her two deceased children and the torture and child abuse of all four children, including the two surviving children involved in the custody dispute. In Blair’s case, she has admitted killing Stoni but alleges Stephen’s death was an accident.
The North Carolina Court, following the reasoning adopted nationwide, has ruled that biological parents have a constitutionally-protected right to the care, custody, and control of their children as compared to any non-parent seeking custodial rights. This deference to a biological parent is a core tenant of child custody law and is commonly referred to as the “Parental Preference”. Despite this preference to a biological parent, the Court in North Carolina has ruled that parental rights can be terminated if a parent is deemed unfit, neglects the welfare of the child, voluntarily waives the preference or acts inconsistent with their parental status.
Given the constitutionally-protected Parental Preference, termination of parental rights is an extremely difficult burden for a State or moving parent/person to meet. Certainly, the admission of murder of a child is action inconsistent with the parental status sufficient for a court to terminate Blair’s parental rights to her two surviving children. In most cases though, the question is more nuanced. Child Protective Services investigated Blair twice, in 2002 and in 2005, both following reports of visible abuse to Blair’s children. CPS could not say why action was not taken to remove Blair’s children from the home. If CPS had acted in 2002 or 2005 to terminate Blair’s parental rights, the nature and extent of any then-abuse may not have been sufficient to terminate.
Blair’s 17-year-old and 8-year-old children are currently staying with Blair’s aunt and the expectation is that Blair and both children’s fathers will have their parental rights terminated.