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  • May 08, 2023

    No Contest Pleas to Grounds in TPR Cases: A Practical Guide

    More and more termination of parental rights (TPR) cases are ending up in the appeal process due to concerns about the validity of the plea. Jenni Spies Karas addresses a practical guide to ensuring a no contest plea to grounds will withstand appellate review.

    Jenni Spies Karas

    The primary goal of Wis. Stat. chapter 48 is to protect children and to preserve families, whenever appropriate. When this cannot be done,

    instability and impermanence in family relationships are contrary to the welfare of children and … [there is] importance of eliminating the need for children to wait unreasonable periods of time for their parents to correct the conditions that prevent their safe return to the family.1

    As practitioners, one simple way we can ensure children achieve permanency as soon as possible is to ensure the process is done correctly the first time.

    When accepting no contest plea to the grounds alleged in a termination of parental rights petition, the circuit court shall:

    • address the parties present and determine that the admission is made voluntarily with understanding of the nature of the acts alleged in the petition and the potential dispositions;

    • establish whether any promises or threats were made to elicit an admission; and

    • make such inquiries as satisfactorily establish that there is a factual basis for the admission.2

    But, what does this mean to you as the petitioner, respondent parent’s attorney, or guardian ad litem?

    Voluntariness of Plea

    First, in order to ensure that the no contest plea is made voluntarily, the circuit court must explain to the respondent parent that accepting the plea will result in a finding that the respondent parent is unfit.3

    Jenni Spies Karas headshot Jenni Spies Karas, Marquette 2006, is an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee County where she serves as the team captain of the Termination of Parental Rights Unit.

    Second, in regards to the voluntariness of the plea, the court must explain to the respondent parent the potential dispositions available in a TPR case. Specifically, the court will either grant the petition to terminate parental rights or dismiss the petition. The court, however, does not need to explain every single possible dispositional alternative, but rather only an either/or determination.4

    Third, in order for the explanation of the dispositional alternatives to be meaningful, the court must inform the respondent parent that the standard for determining to terminate parental rights or dismiss the petition at the dispositional hearing is what is in the best interests of the child.5

    No Threats or Promises

    In addition to establishing that the respondent parent has an understanding of exactly what they are agreeing to when pleading no contest, the court must specifically confirm with the respondent parent that no threats or promises were made to obtain the plea.6

    A plea is voluntary and without any threats or force even when the respondent parent is offered additional time or visitation before the dispositional hearing in exchange for the no contest plea.7 That is because providing the respondent parent with “a choice between two reasonable alternatives and … the consequences is not coercive of the choice finally made.”8

    Factual Basis

    After accepting a knowing and voluntary plea from a respondent parent, the court is required to receive evidence to establish a factual basis for the grounds admitted to by the respondent parent.9 This requires that the petitioner provide testimony through a qualified witness to the court regarding the factual basis for the alleged ground.10

    Giving up a Constitutional Right: Jodie W.

    Finally, in addition to the statutory plea requirements, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has held that the respondent parent must have knowledge of the constitutional rights that they are giving up by making the plea in order for the no contest plea to be valid.<11

    The constitutional right the respondent parent is giving up includes but is not limited to the care, custody, and companionship a parent has in raising their own child.1​2

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Children & the Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Children & the Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.


    1 Wis. Stat. § 48.01(1)(a).

    2 Wis. Stat. § 48.422 (7).

    3Oneida County Department of Social Services v. Therese S., 2008 WI App 159, ¶10, 314 Wis. 2d 493, 762 N.W.2d 122.


    5Id. at ¶16.

    6 Wis. Stat. § 48.422(7)(b).

    7Armstrong v. State, 55 Wis. 2d 282, 288, 198 N.W.2d 357 (1972) and State v. K.C.H., 2017AP1787, ¶23.

    8Id. at 288.

    9 Wis. Stat. § 48.422(7)(c).

    10Waukesha County v. Steven H., 2000 WI 28, ¶56, 224 Wis. 2d 939, 592 N.W.2d 320.

    11Kenosha County Department of Human Services v. Jodie W., 2006 WI 93, ¶25, 293 Wis. 2d 530, 716 N.W.2d 845.

    12Barstad v. Frazier, 118 Wis. 2d 549, 348 N.W.2d 479 (1984).

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    Children & the Law Blog is published by the Children & the Law Section and the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Christie Christie and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Children & the Law Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2024 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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