Inability to reconcile not a basis for unfitness finding, appeals court rules

A mother’s inability to remedy a breakdown in her relationship with her 14-year-old child was not a sufficient basis for a finding of parental unfitness, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled.

The child nominated her maternal grandmother and uncle as guardians. Following a trial, Probate & Family Judge Linda S. Fidnick appointed the grandmother and uncle as guardians after concluding that the mother was unfit due to the child’s unwillingness to be parented by the mother and the mother’s inability to remedy the near-total breakdown in the parent-child relationship.

An Appeals Court panel disagreed.

“Although the child expressed a preference for her grandmother and uncle, the present case lacked the requisite parental deficiencies that would warrant a finding of unfitness,” Judge Christopher P. Hodgens wrote for the court.

The mother’s failure to repair the relationship with her daughter did not show the requisite “high degree of probability” that the mother is an unfit parent, Hodgens wrote.

“Our jurisprudence squarely rejects equating a child’s custody preference — no matter how stubbornly expressed — with unfitness. … The child’s preference for her grandmother and uncle did not prove the mother had ‘grievous shortcomings’ that would put the child’s welfare ‘much at hazard.’ … Although a judge must carefully consider that preference, a teenager cannot render her parent unfit by the simple expedient of refusing to engage with that parent,” he wrote.

The 12-page decision is Guardianship of Raya.

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