Articles Posted in Family Law

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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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