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Rhode Island Law Provides for Special Hearsay Exceptions in Family Court Proceedings

In 1989, the Rhode Island Supreme Court decided an important case in Rhode Island family law, particularly within the realm of admissible evidence. Petitioners appealed a family court decree granting a petition to terminate parental rights filed by the Department of Children and Their Families (DCF). The petitioners had three children, but their parental rights were terminated exclusively in regard to their eldest child. The state high court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

In July 1985, the mother placed her three-year-old daughter in the DFC’s care, stating that she was unable to care for her due to the daughter’s aggressive behavior. In foster care, the daughter alleged that she had been sexually abused by her parents, whom she called the “bad people.”

In August 1985, the mother told DCF that she did not want visitation with her eldest daughter. Based on the eldest child’s allegations of sexual abuse, the Family Court issued an ex parte order of detention, placing the daughter and her two younger sisters in temporary DFC custody. That November, a DCF caseworker established a plan for the parents to have visitation with their eldest daughter. The parents refused to sign the plan at the request of their lawyer.

In January 1986, a commitment trial was held, after which the parents and DCF entered into a consent decree establishing a finding of dependency. The eldest daughter was committed to the DCF until further court order.

In June 1986, the DCF caseworker presented a case plan for reunification. On July 2, 1986, the plan was approved by the Family Court and executed by both petitioners. The Family Court suspended all parental visitation for 6 months while the family went to counseling.

After 6 months of no communication from either petitioner, the DCF filed a petition to terminate parental rights pursuant to G.L. 1956 (1981 Reenactment) § 15-7-7(c). After a November 1987 trial, the petition was granted. The parents appealed that decree.

On appeal, the petitioners first argued that the trial judge had misconceived material evidence when he found that their conditions were unlikely to change. The Rhode Island Supreme Court disagreed. It held that the trial judge did not misconceive the evidence pursuant to the controlling statute when he’d held that the parents were unwilling to chance the conditions that caused their daughter’s placement in DCF.

The court reasoned that the facts plainly established that DCF made reasonable efforts to reunite the family. The caseworker emphasized the importance of therapy, and DCF offered to replace a counselor that the father didn’t like. DCF further always assumed responsibility for driving both parents to Parents United meetings. DCF offered to provide childcare for the mother’s fourth child while she attended counseling. Thus, the trial court did not err in finding that the conditions leading to the eldest daughter’s commitment were unlikely to change.

Petitioners further argued that the trial judge erred when he admitted hearsay statements made by the eldest daughter regarding the alleged sexual abuse. First, the petitioners contended that the daughter‘s competency had not been established. Second, they argued that her extrajudicial statements to the caseworker were not admissible under any exception to the hearsay rule. The state high court disagreed.

Regarding the child’s competency as a witness, the court had previously held that the statute didn’t require the child to be found competent before her statement could be admitted into evidence.

The court had also addressed the hearsay-exception issue in a previous case. There, the state high court held that when such a hearsay statement was made spontaneously, within a reasonable time after the act is alleged to have occurred, and was made to someone the child would normally turn to for protection, that statement is a hearsay exception under § 14-1-69.

The court held that the testimony clearly established that the eldest daughter trusted her caseworker for protection. Because of the daughter’s constant fear that her mother would harm her, she often insisted that the caseworker be with her during parental visitation. Thus, here statements were within the guidelines prescribed by the statute.

The parents’ appeal was accordingly denied and dismissed.

Bilodeau Capalbo, LLC’s skilled family law attorneys are prepared to assist Rhode Island fight for their parental rights. Call (401) 400-8182 to schedule your complimentary consultation today.

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