ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — His parental rights were terminated in 1990 Doña Ana case
A man whose parental rights were terminated after allegations of mental and physical abuse does not have to pay more than $117,000 in court-ordered child support for his two children, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.
Judge Michael Bustamante, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, concluded termination of parental rights severs the parent-child relationship completely – including the support obligation.
The ruling came in the case of a Doña Ana County couple who married in 1984 and divorced in 1990. The father was ordered to pay $600 a month in child support payments for the couple’s two children.
Three years later, the mother sought to terminate her ex-husband’s parental rights based on allegations of mental and physical abuse. The father didn’t show up for the hearing, and the district judge noted that the children had “witnessed horrific violence and mayhem to those they love.”
The judge also noted the father had kidnapped the children and taken them to Texas for 10 months in 1990 without letting them have any contact with the mother during that period.
The District Court said the children would not be damaged if they never had contact with the father again and granted the termination request. The November 1993 termination order made no mention of child support.
The mother applied for aid from the state Human Services Department. HSD collected some $7,620 from the father and the mother continued to press for unpaid child support.
In 2010, District Judge Michael Murphy of Las Cruces ordered the father to pay $117,502 in past due child support plus interest, for a 14-year period from 1994 through September 2010.
The father appealed and the Appeals Court reversed Murphy’s order, noting that the state statute dealing with termination of parental rights was far from clear.
The mother argued the law dealt with the rights of the parent, not a parent’s duties toward a child, so a child’s “inherent right to support from the parent persists” even after parental rights are ended.
The father argued that if the Legislature had intended a continuing duty of child support, it would have explicitly said so.
The Appeals Court said that revisions to adoption law, made part of the Children’s Code in significant 1985 revisions, removed reference to a parent’s “duties and obligations” post-termination.
“The question is whether the changes in language … reveal a legislative intent to continue support obligations after termination of parental rights. We conclude that they do not,” the Appeals Court said.
“Such a significant change,” it said, “would seemingly require definitive action by the Legislature.”
Bustamante’s opinion says termination of rights is meant to end the connection forever.
“The Legislature had no intent to change the fundamental nature and effect of an order terminating rights when it amended the Children’s Code in 1985,” the ruling said. “The fundamental and terrible act of severing the parent-child relationship cuts off all connection between them except as specifically excepted by the Legislature.”
The court said its analysis looked at historical changes in laws “that reflect an evolution of attitudes toward the parent-child relationship and the problems posed by abused, neglected and delinquent children.”
Judges Cynthia Fry and Michael E. Vigil joined in the opinion, which reverses the lower court.