However, a lesser-known principle is that “[t]he trial on the petition for termination of parental rights shall be completed within 90 days after service of process has been perfected.” Ala. Code § 12-15-320(a). (Emphasis added)
Additionally, many courts and practitioners are unaware that a judge’s failure to abide by these perimeters can result in a sharp reprimand and has even led to a Juvenile Judge’s suspension from the bench.
The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, in Ex parte Marshall Cnty. Dep’t of Human Res., 252 So.3d 1105 (Ala. Civ. App. 2017), granted a petition for writ of mandamus on the grounds that the juvenile court had not completed trial on termination of parental rights within 90 days, in compliance with § 12-15-320(a). The Appellate Court agreed that the petitioner is “entitled to have the trial on the termination-of-parental-rights petition concluded in a timely manner, as required by § 12–15–320(a).” Id. at 1107, 1108.
The timeframe is required by law in part because swift adjudication of termination actions is in the best interest of the children involved. “Section 12–15– 320(a) is consistent with the general goal that termination actions, because of their significance in affecting fundamental rights and their impact on the lives of children, be addressed and resolved as expeditiously as possible.” Ex parte A.D.W., 192 So.3d 405, 408 (Ala. Civ. App. 2015).
Prolonged, unresolved juvenile court proceedings may be harmful to the minor child. As Judge Moore observed in her concurring opinion in Montgomery Cnty. Dep’t of Human Res. v. T.S., 218 So.3d 1252 (Ala. Civ. App. 2016):
“Although Ala. Code 1975, § 12–15–320(a), required that the juvenile court try the case within 90 days after the mother and the father had been served with the petition, the juvenile court did not complete the trial until 16 months after it began. The evidence in the record shows that, during that time, the child bonded with her foster mother and lost contact with the mother and the father. Near the end of the trial, the juvenile court rightly expressed concern that the stability of the child, established during that period, would be disrupted if the petition was denied and the parents were reintroduced to the child. At this point, if rehabilitation efforts lead the juvenile court to return the child to the mother or the father, the child will undoubtedly experience the traumatic loss of another family no matter how delicately the case proceeds. At the very least, the juvenile court could have lessened that potential problem by acting promptly on the petition as required by law. The juvenile court laid great blame on DHR for mishandling this case, but the juvenile court also should consider its own culpability in unlawfully prolonging this matter to the detriment of the child.” Id., at 1270. (Emphasis added)