Articles Posted in Family Law

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Rhode Island family courts are often placed in the difficult position of determining whether it is in the child’s best interests to place them in foster care or an adoptive home when the natural parent still desires a parent-child relationship with the child. At-risk children are usually first discovered by the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), which takes custody of the children and offers services to the parents to correct whatever situation led to the children being placed in the custody of the state. If a parent fails to correct their situation, DCYF may go to the courts and seek to terminate the parent’s parental rights. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently addressed a natural father’s appeal from a family court ruling that terminated his rights to his daughter.

In the recently decided case, the Respondent is the natural father to a child born in October 2016. According to the court’s opinion, the child was taken into DCYF custody shortly after birth because of issues with both parents’ ability to care for her. Evidently, one of the mother’s previous children had died in an accident related to child neglect, and the father had apparent drug and alcohol problems, as well as a history of domestic violence.

After the DCYF took custody of the child, a reunification plan was put into place to allow the father to regain custody of the child. As part of the reunification plan, the father needed to attend several parenting and substance abuse classes and attend supervised visits with the daughter to introduce him to the child and help him with parenting skills.

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In Rhode Island, family courts address many issues relating to families and children, including divorce, custody, child support, and adoption matters. Some of the most difficult and heart-wrenching issues addressed by family courts are proceedings initiated to terminate the parental rights of a natural parent. To terminate a parent’s rights, a family court must find by clear and convincing evidence that a parent is unfit to have rights over their child, and that the termination of such rights is in the best interest of the child. In a recently decided appeal, the Rhode Island Supreme Court discussed the requirements for termination of parental rights, and ultimately ruled that a father’s rights were properly terminated by a family court.

In the recently decided case, the respondent is the father of a minor child who had been placed in foster care shortly after her birth in 2014 because the parents were “red-flagged” by the state Department of Youth and Families for instances of abuse against other children in their care. Between 2014 and 2016, the Department instituted a plan for the respondent to demonstrate his fitness to safely and effectively parent his child in order to assume custody of the child. According to testimony from the termination proceedings, the respondent repeatedly refused to cooperate with the Department in formulating and following through on the reunification plan. The respondent would have some visitation with the child. However, he did not attend classes as requested by the Department, and he was repeatedly incarcerated for short periods of time and unable to attend to the reunification plan or visit the child.

After months of attempted reunification, the Department ultimately sought to terminate the respondent’s parental rights so that the child could be adopted into the foster home where she had lived most of her life. The Department argued that the respondent was unfit to parent the child as he was uncooperative with the Department plan and unable to keep himself out of jail long enough to have a relationship with his daughter. The Department also argued that the child was happy in her foster family and that they desired to adopt her into their home permanently if she was placed up for adoption.

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It is almost always only following unfortunate circumstances that the Rhode Island Department of Children Youth and Families (the DCYF) petitions the court to terminate the parental rights of a natural parent. The procedural requirements and standard of proof required to terminate parental rights are more stringent than in other civil claims, however, these petitions are frequently granted. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently published an opinion affirming an order by a family court terminating a mother’s parental rights of her seven-year-old daughter.

According to the court’s opinion, the respondent in the recently decided case is a woman who struggled for most of her life with addiction and abuse. The evidence showed that the respondent was abused as a child and driven into drug and alcohol use from a young age. In addition to her addiction, the respondent was involved in abusive relationships throughout her life. When the respondent was pregnant with the child at issue in this case, she and the father of the child were arrested for neglect which resulted in injuries to another child that they shared. As a result of the pending charges, as well as the respondent’s substance abuse problems and failure to have a safe home or obtain any prenatal care for her soon-to-be-born daughter, the Rhode Island Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) temporarily took the child from the mother when she was born, and placed her into a foster program.

Although the respondent attempted to make changes in her life and attended several programs for new mothers struggling with parenthood and substance abuse issues, she maintained her relationship with the abusive father of her children, and ultimately was sentenced to prison time for the neglect charge, which interrupted her attempts to gain permanent custody of the child. Based on the ongoing issues, the DCYF sought to permanently terminate her parental rights, arguing that there was not a reasonable probability that the child would be able to safely return to the mother’s care within a reasonable amount of time. The family court ruled that there was clear and convincing evidence that the respondent was an unfit parent, and her rights were terminated.

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Family court cases often present some of the most difficult legal issues due to the high stakes involved. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently upheld the family court’s decision to terminate parental rights in a Rhode Island child custody case over a 3-year-old child.

According to the court’s opinion, when the daughter was two years old, Department of Children, Youth, and Families (the Department) filed a petition seeking to terminate the mother’s parental rights to her daughter. The Department claimed that the daughter had been in its custody or care for twelve months or more, that the mother had been offered services, and that there was not a substantial probability that the daughter could be returned to the mother within a reasonable period of time.

Evidently, the mother had been hospitalized at least fifteen times and had attempted to commit suicide multiple times. An expert psychologist testified that he diagnosed the mother with bipolar disorder with psychotic features. On appeal, the mother argued that the family court was incorrect in finding the Department made reasonable efforts to provide the mother with services, that the mother was unfit, and that the termination of parental rights was in the best interests of the child.

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Although Rhode Island does not allow for annulments, practically speaking, a Rhode Island marriage can be declared “void” by the court. This carries the same effect as an annulment, meaning that it is as though there was no marriage in the first place. Thus, while Rhode Island technically does not provide for annulments, that is merely a function of the language lawmakers chose.

Divorce Versus Annulment

Divorce and annulment are very different things. In a Rhode Island divorce, the parties are ending what is agreed to have been a valid marriage. However, an annulment is a legal proceeding in which a marriage is declared void. After a successful annulment, legally speaking, it is as though the marriage never took place.

Under What Circumstances Can a Marriage Be Declared Void

There are only a few limited circumstances in which a Rhode Island marriage can be declared void. Under Rhode Island General Laws § 15-1-5, both bigamous marriages and those involving a person who is mentally incompetent at the time of the marriage are absolutely void. A bigamous marriage is one in which one of the parties involved is still currently married to another person or “a relationship that provides substantially the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as a marriage whether entered into in this state or another state or jurisdiction.”

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