Articles Posted in Child Custody

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In a recent case, the Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld a district court judge’s decision to terminate a mother’s parental rights, partially due to her mental health issues. The case began when the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) removed the mother’s newborn child after receiving a “hotline” call. The mother also had a pending case with DCYF involving the custody of her four older children. According to several DCYF caseworkers, the DCYF developed a case plan requiring the mother to accept mental health and domestic violence services, learn skills for meeting her child’s needs, and sign releases of information so DCYF could coordinate with her mental health providers. Several caseworkers observed that the mother’s behavior was erratic, inconsistent, and not acceptable in her child’s presence. She also refused to sign the releases, citing concerns over sharing her private health information. Finally, when DCYF removed her newborn, the mother suffered a mental breakdown and was committed to a hospital for mental health treatment. At the hospital, she could not see her child because DCYF determined there was no way to supervise the visit. Ultimately, DCYF discharged the mother from her reunification program because of her erratic behavior and failure to comply with the mental health services plan.

The trial court granted DCYF’s petition to terminate the mother’s parental rights. Specifically, DCYF had sufficiently proven that it offered the mother services to correct the situation that led to the separation, and the mother was unfit based on her “seriously detrimental” mental health symptoms. On appeal, the mother argued that the district court erred in finding that the DCYF made reasonable efforts at reunification when she was hospitalized. She further alleged that DCYF failed to offer services reasonably designed to address her mental health needs. However, the Rhode Island Supreme Court court rejected these claims.

The Reasonable Efforts Standard

As the court explained, DCYF must prove by clear and convincing evidence that it made “reasonable efforts to encourage and strengthen the parental relationship” before a court can terminate a parent’s rights. Rhode Island courts must determine the reasonableness of DCYF’s efforts based on the particular facts of each case.

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The Rhode Island Division of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) is tasked with the unenviable job of addressing abusive or neglectful parents whose conduct may put their children at serious risk. The DCYF often is involved in cases where one or both parents are suffering from mental health issues and addictions or engaging in chronic criminal activity. Before seeking to take someone’s children away and terminate their parental rights, the DCYF usually prepares a case plan to give the parent(s) the ability to improve their lifestyle, learn parenting skills, and ultimately regain permanent custody of their children. Wide discretion is given to individual DCYF employees to determine the requirements of a successful case plan. A father recently appealed the termination of his parental rights after he allegedly failed to properly follow through on his case plan.

The appellant in the recently decided appeal is the father of a young child born in 2018. Based upon existing neglect and termination proceedings concerning the mother’s other children, the DCYF immediately opened a neglect case in regard to the child once they learned of the birth. As part of the neglect case, a case plan was developed to allow the father to demonstrate his fitness as a parent. The father and mother were no longer a couple when the neglect case was initiated, so the DCYF assigned individual case plans to each of the parents. The father, who allegedly admitted to selling drugs in the past to a DCYF-referred therapist, was instructed to abstain from drugs and alcohol and enter into substance abuse treatment with random drug screenings as part of the case plan.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the father attempted to comply with many portions of the case plan, attending parenting classes and supervised visits with the child. The father did not, however, submit proof that he attended a substance abuse evaluation or provide drug screening results as expected. While the case plan was in effect, the father was arrested for possession of heroin and incarcerated. In response to his arrest and incarceration, the DCYF chose to pursue termination proceedings against the father. A trial was held on the matter, where the family court determined that the father was unfit to parent the child, that he was unlikely to become a fit parent in a reasonable amount of time, and that the child’s current placement in a foster home was healthy and likely to result in an adoption. Based on those findings, the family court entered an order terminating the father’s parental rights.

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The State of Rhode Island has enacted administrative and legal methods for intervening in a parent’s parental and custodial rights if a child is being neglected or abused. Generally, the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) will be notified about the suspicion of child abuse or neglect, and then begin an investigation. If the DCYF investigators confirm that it appears abuse or neglect is occurring, the agency can petition a Family Court to intervene and place the child in a safe custodial environment while the DCYF and the parents attempt to resolve the allegedly abusive or neglectful environment. If the parents fail to meet the expectations of the DCYF caseworkers, the agency may seek to permanently terminate the parent’s parental rights to place the children in the permanent custody of another person who the state sees as fitter to care for the child. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently affirmed a Family Court’s decision to permanently terminate the parental rights of a man who was found unfit to parent his child.

The appellant in the recently decided appeal is the natural father of a nine-year-old boy who has been the subject of a DCYF investigation that was opened in 2018 as a result of the appellant reporting the child’s mother for neglect. As part of their investigation, the DCYF convinced the family court to temporarily place the child in the custody of his maternal grandmother. In late 2018, the DCYF created a case plan for the father to participate in to demonstrate his ability to properly care for the child as his primary custodian. The DCYF requested that the father attend substance abuse and mental health treatment, and participate in supervised visits through a parenting program. Although the father did attend some treatment appointments and scheduled visits, he ultimately abandoned the case plan.

In January 2020, the DCYF filed a petition to terminate the father’s parental rights and have the child permanently placed in the care of his grandmother. After a six day trial, the Family Court granted the DCYF petition, finding that the father was not fit to care for his son and that it was in the child’s best interests to be permanently placed in the custody of his maternal grandmother. The father appealed the Family court ruling, arguing that he was justified in abandoning the DCYF case plan, and that he was a fit father. The Supreme Court found that the findings of the lower court were valid, ruling that the father’s objections, while valid, were not sufficient to overcome the judgment of the family court. As a result of the appellate opinion, the father’s parental rights are permanently terminated.

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Divorces and child custody cases can be some of the most conflict-ridden and emotionally charged legal disputes that are addressed by Rhode Island courts. Many parties to these disputes are so overcome with emotion from the conflicts that led to the legal filings that compromise and agreement can seem out of the question. The fact is, that most Rhode Island divorce and custody cases are at least partially resolved through mediation, and the majority of litigants who resolve family law claims through mediation are pleased that they were able to reach an agreement.

Mediation is an officially sanctioned negotiation process where parties to a dispute can meet with a neutral third party to discuss the issues of their case and attempt to reach a resolution. Mediators may be attorneys, social workers, or even retired family court judges. The job of the mediator is to facilitate communication between the parties, while also offering advice as to how a court may rule on the contested issues. The goal of the mediation is to have the parties agree to an enforceable resolution of all or some of the issues in the case, to avoid a judge having to rule against one party or the other in an adversarial dispute.

Mediation has several benefits. Parties are more likely to accept and follow a family court order that is the result of mediation, because each party agreed to the order, and cannot claim that it was imposed upon them. Mediation is also generally more time efficient and less expensive than a resolution obtained through court proceedings and trial. Additionally, meditation can benefit families by facilitating face-to-face interaction between conflicted couples, which can lead to an improved co-parenting dynamic in the future.

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The work of administrative child protection agencies (colloquially called “Child Protective Services” but known as the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families in this state) can be some of the most difficult and emotionally taxing legal work imaginable. The DCYF is tasked with the difficult job of determining when a natural parent should lose their parental rights. The DCFY has additional responsibilities besides advocating for the termination of a parent’s rights. The DCYF takes a primary role in ensuring the safety of at-risk children while the process is ongoing, as well as finding a permanent placement for the adoption of the children after parental rights have been terminated.

The DCYF recently succeeded in denying a natural grandfather the opportunity for placement and adoption of his grandson, after the natural father was found to be an unsuitable caretaker. Based on criminal and civil investigations, the DCYF initiated proceedings by taking the minor child from his natural father’s custody and placing him in a temporary foster home. The child’s grandfather attempted to have the child placed with him, both temporarily, and on a permanent basis. Proceeding without an attorney, the grandfather attempted to apply with the DCYF to have the child placed with him, although he did not follow the exact procedures required to make the request, and it was denied.

Later, the natural father’s rights were definitively and permanently terminated, and the child was adopted to an unrelated family, against the grandfather’s objections. The grandfather appealed to a higher court to challenge the denial of his attempts to adopt the child, seeking a declaratory judgment that would affirm that he had been wronged by the DCYF. On appeal, the court found that the grandfather lost all basis to challenge any of the courts’ determination because the father lost his parental rights, and at that point, the grandfather had no rights to the child. This ruling was made in spite of the fact that the grandfather started requesting placement and adoption long before the father’s rights were terminated.

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When parents split up, custody and care of the children becomes an extremely important issue to resolve. Although some couples agree on custody, visitation, and support conditions for their co-parenting arrangement, court orders memorializing an enforceable agreement are usually necessary to ensure each party is held accountable to uphold their part of an agreement. Stipulated custody agreements that are reduced to an enforceable court order may later be modified by a separate petition or motion, which may bring parties back into court after a custody case appears to be resolved. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently affirmed a state family court ruling that denied a mother’s request to relocate to Florida with the parties’ child.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the plaintiff in the recently decided case is the father of a child that he shares with the defendant. The parties were never married, but after they broke up, the plaintiff sought court orders to allow him visitation and partial custody of his child. After a trial, the plaintiff was granted partial custody and visitation with the child. After the entry of the custody orders, the defendant has since filed a motion with the court asking her to be allowed to relocate to Florida with the child. Rhode Island law requires that relocation by one parent against the wishes of the other parent can only be permitted if a court determines that the relocation would be in the best interest of the child.

The defendant argued that relocating was in the best interest of the child because she was struggling to raise her children as a single mother (she had another child from a previous relationship), and her mother would be available to help in Florida. Additionally, she had been offered a job in Florida. The family court evaluated the parties’ arguments and denied the mother’s motion. Specifically, the family court judge found that the mother failed to demonstrate how the relocation would be in the child’s best interest.

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Custody-related agreements and changes can be a tricky legal landscape to navigate, especially when the parties disagree and children are involved. For example, if one parent wants to alter the terms of the couple’s custody agreement by moving to a new state with their child, the alteration of the couple’s agreement could be subject to determinations by a Rhode Island family court. When a family court evaluates such requests, they typically have to decide what is in the best interest of the child so that everyone involved has their needs met.

In a recent state Supreme Court decision, the court affirmed a family court order denying a mother’s motion to relocate with the parties’ child. In the case at hand, the parties shared joint custody of their child, with physical placement with the mother. The mother filed a motion to relocate with her child from Rhode Island to New Jersey, stating reasons associated with her employment and overall welfare and happiness. The father filed an objection to the mother’s motion and emphasized the need for shared parenting and the fact that the parties’ families were both located in Rhode Island. After hearing testimony from both parties, the trial justice denied the mother’s request to relocate and held that it would not be in the child’s best interest to relocate as the mother requested.

On appeal, the mother argued that the trial justice erred in denying her motion because they overlooked and misconceived evidence. The Supreme Court, however, ultimately affirmed the family court’s order denying the mother’s motion to relocate with the parties’ child. Although the mother cited an increase in financial circumstances due to new employment in New Jersey as a reason for relocating, this was undermined by the fact that the mother already makes an amount equal to what she would have made at her new job after relocating. The presence of the child’s maternal and paternal relatives in Rhode Island also played a role in affirming the Court’s decision.

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Divorces and custody cases in Rhode Island can be some of the most contentious and protracted proceedings that are heard by state courts. The intense emotion and resentment between parties in family law disputes often lead cases down a dark road where the best interests of any children at issue seem distant from the actual arguments taking place in court. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently ruled on an appeal of a custody order that gave a father joint custody of his child, while finding the mother in contempt for interfering with his visitation.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case is the father of a six-year-old boy who sought partial custody and visitation with the child from the defendant, the mother of the child. According to the facts discussed in the judicial opinion, the mother claimed throughout the proceedings that the father suffered from psychological issues and was not able to safely be with the child one-on-one. After a trial that lasted nearly two years, the family court ultimately awarded the parties joint custody of the child, with the mother as the primary caretaker, and the father having reasonable visitation. In spite of the court order, the mother continued to refuse the father meaningful parent time with the child alone, ultimately leading to the family court holding her in contempt.

The mother appealed both the family court’s judgment and the contempt order to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, arguing that the court’s judgment was erroneous. The Supreme Court upheld the lower courts rulings, noting and applying the factors that Rhode Island law considers when determining child custody: (1) the wishes of the child’s parents; (2) the reasonable preference of the child; (3) the interaction and relationship of the child to the parents; (4) the child’s adjustment to his or her home, school, and community; (5) the mental and physical health of the individuals involved; (6) the stability of the child’s home life; (7) the moral fitness of the parents; and (8) the willingness of each parent to facilitate a close relationship between the child and the other parent. Finding that the decision to give the father joint custody and reasonable parent time considered and properly applied the relevant factors, the high court affirmed the family court’s ruling.

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A Rhode Island divorce can be an extremely difficult and complicated legal dispute, often because the stakes of a child custody dispute are always very high. Although there is limited statutory direction to guide the courts when awarding custody of a child to one parent or the other, the courts have developed legal principles that are used consistently in deciding how to award custody. A case recently decided by the Rhode Island Supreme Court explains the primary factors courts should use in making a custody determination and deciding whether to permit a parent to move out of state with their children against the other parent’s wishes.

In the recently decided case, the parties were a married couple with children who sought a divorce in Rhode Island family court. The mother, who was awarded primary physical custody of the children, sought to relocate to Ohio to be near her family after the divorce. The father, who was awarded joint legal custody of the children, as well as visitation privileges, challenged the mother’s relocation because he wanted to be closer to the children. The family court denied the mother’s request, requiring her to remain in Rhode Island with the children. The mother appealed the ruling to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

On appeal, the high court discussed the factors for awarding child custody used in Rhode Island. According to the opinion, the courts focus broadly on factors to make a decision concerning relocation that is in the best interests of the children. These factors include considering the nature and quality of the relationship between each parent and the children, the reasonable likelihood that the relocation would enhance the general quality of life, including economic and educational opportunities, for both the parent and the children. Additional factors to be considered include the feasibility of maintaining a relationship and suitable visitation between the non-relocating parent and the children and the existence of extended family and other support systems available to the child in both locations.

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Rhode Island child custody disputes can be especially difficult during and after a divorce. Family court judges are granted wide discretion in determining what custody or visitation arrangement a family will be required to abide by, and overturning these decisions can be difficult. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently released an opinion denying a father’s request for argument in an appeal that he had filed challenging a family court judge’s ruling which suspended unsupervised visitation with his children.

The appellant in the recently decided case is a Rhode Island father of three children who was divorced from the mother of the children in early 2014. As part of the divorce agreement, the father was granted partial custody of the children with the right to visitation. In 2017, the mother of the children sought to suspend the father’s visitation, in part because of alleged animal abuse that occurred in the presence of the children. After hearing from witnesses, including both parents and the couple’s children, a family court judge granted the mother’s request to suspend unsupervised visitation. The judge also ruled that the father must complete a mental-health evaluation and seek leave from the court before resuming unsupervised visits with his children.

The father was displeased with the family court’s decision and appealed the ruling.  The appeal eventually reached the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The father, representing himself throughout the process, argued that the lower court abused its discretion when it ruled that his behavior was harmful to the children. Additionally, the father alleged that incident involving the alleged animal abuse never occurred, and that it was the result of “false memories” that were created with the encouragement of the children’s mother and their maternal grandparents.

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