Why Jury Trials for Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights Cases?
Wisconsin has a two stage procedure for terminating parental rights. At stage one, petitioner must prove that grounds exist for the termination of the rights of the parent. Once statutory grounds have been proven, the case moves to hearing number two, this time in front of the judge. At this dispositional phase, petitioner must prove that it is in the best interests of the child for the rights of the parent to be terminated.
Wisconsin is one of a handful of states that has a right to a jury trial and has two separate hearings in order for petitioner to be successful. Jury trials are not constitutionally mandated.
The two step with jury trial approach may be unique in the country, but is it necessary? Typically, adopting parents pay for all of the litigation expense for petitioner and the guardian ad litem. For many young families seeking to adopt, the cost is prohibitively expensive. Often the parent whose rights are sought to be involuntarily terminated is represented free of charge. From a judicial efficiency standpoint, two hearings occur instead of one. One is often a jury trial with the extra time a jury trial demands. It is time for Wisconsin to join all but a couple of states and eliminate the jury trial.