Articles Posted in Termination of Parental Rights

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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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Rhode Island residents have the right to care for and parent their children as they choose, with some restrictions. In situations where a parent is unable or unwilling to safely care for their child, the state of Rhode Island may get involved. The Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) has the authority to take temporary or permanent custody of children who are in danger of abuse or neglect. Permanently depriving a parent of their parental rights to a child is the most severe response to child abuse or neglect. This is generally reserved as a decision of last resort when efforts to encourage a parent to safely care for their child have failed. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently affirmed a lower court’s ruling that terminated a natural father’s rights to his daughter after a years-long child welfare proceeding.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the child who is at issue in this case was born in July 2013 and was brought to the attention of the DCYF shortly after her birth. The child was born with high levels of addictive substances in her system, and she required medical care as a newborn to prevent withdrawals. For the first several years of her life, the child would go between living with her parents and living in temporary foster homes, as the DCYF worked with the parents to assist them with learning how to care for their daughter.

After several years of back-and-forth, and a continual 12-month time period where the DCYF heard nothing from the father while his child was in foster care, the agency decided to seek permanent termination of the father’s parental rights. After a trial, the father’s rights were terminated. The trial judge determined that the father was not cooperative enough with the agency in making behavioral changes to allow him to safely care for his daughter. Additionally, the judge noted that the daughter was thriving in her foster home and wished to stay there permanently. With these findings, the court entered an order terminating the father’s rights, which would set up the child to be adopted by her foster family.

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The Supreme Court of Rhode Island recently issued a decision in which the court terminated a mother’s parental rights to her son. The mother had her son in 2017 when she was seventeen years old. The mother planned to live with her stepfather who had a history of physical or sexual abuse against a child and had previously been convicted of second-degree child molestation. A Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) investigator told the mother she could not live with her stepfather due to his history. The investigator also said that the mother could not allow contact between the child and her stepfather. The mother then went to live with her mother. However, shortly after that, the mother and the child went to live with her stepfather. The son was removed from the home, and the mother was reportedly unwilling to move from her stepfather’s home.

The mother attended weekly supervised visits with her son. However, it was later discovered that the mother’s stepfather was present during one of the visits. A family court concluded that the mother had not demonstrated an ability to protect her son, and DCYF filed a petition to terminate her parental rights, who had been in DCYF’s care for over twelve months. A family court later terminated the mother’s parental rights. The mother appealed the decision.

Termination of Parental Rights

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Recently, the Rhode Island Supreme Court issued a decision affirming the decree of a family court terminating a mother’s parental rights to her four children. The Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCFY) became involved with the family after the mother was hospitalized for mental health issues. DCFY filed a neglect petition to remove four of the woman’s children, and three were placed with their maternal grandmother, and the youngest was placed with a foster family. DCFY contends that the mother failed to fully engage in counseling and other steps to address her mental health. Further, the mother’s engagement with the children declined over several months. DCFY noted that their initial goal was reunification with the mother; however, the goal changed to termination of parental rights and adoption as time progressed.

According to the relevant part of the statute, Rhode Island General Laws 1956 § 15-7-7, explains the court shall terminate any and all legal rights of a parent to a child if the court finds:

  • With clear and convincing evidence that the parent is unfit by conduct or conditions detrimental to the child
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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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For the most part, the government stays out of how parents raise their children. In fact, the United States Supreme Court has held that “parents have a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody and management” of their children, and that a parent’s rights will not “evaporate” merely because they are not model parents or because they have lost temporary custody of their children. However, at some point, when the state government believes that children are being neglected, abused, or otherwise in danger, the state will intervene.

In order for the state to terminate parental rights, they must establish one of the facts outlined in Rhode Island Statutes section 15-7-7. The list of reasons for which the state can terminate a parent’s rights is not limited by those laid out in section 15-7-7. Instead, the statute provides examples of situations where termination may be appropriate. For example, if a parent is found to have willfully neglected the needs of a child for at least one year despite being financially able to meet them, the state may move to terminate parental rights. Other examples include:

  • a parent’s long-term imprisonment;
  • a parent’s abusive conduct toward a child;
  • the child’s placement with the department for children, youth, and families for 12 months due to a parent’s substance abuse issue, when it does not appear as though the child will be able to return to the parent within a reasonable amount of time; or
  • when a parent’s other child or children have been placed in the custody of the department for children, youth and families, and it does not appear that providing additional services to the parent will result in reunification within a reasonable amount of time.

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