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Rhode Island Supreme Court Affirms Termination of Parental Rights to Mother Who Subjected Children to Abusive Husband

In the early 2000’s, a Rhode Island woman appealed from a family court order terminating her parental rights to six of her seven children. The case came before the Rhode Island Supreme Court on October 1, 2002. The state high court affirmed the family court decree, reasoning that the respondent demonstrated an unwillingness to keep her children away from the man that abused them. This case, In Re Jason L, had a significant impact on Rhode Island family law.

Respondent’s first six children were born to different fathers. Since at least 1997, the father of the youngest child and the respondent herself had been involved in a rocky and abusive relationship. Respondent and the father of her youngest child were married but living separately. Respondent’s husband physically abused her and her children. In 1997, a family court judge found that five of the respondent’s children had unexplained bruises and concluded that her husband was the abuser.

The Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) became involved with this family in January 1997 after learning that the respondent’s husband had abused one of respondent’s children. Between 1997 and 2000, the DCYF prepared eight case plans for the family. The plan emphasized the need to keep the husband away from the respondent and her children. DCYF also referred the respondent to numerous agencies to aid her with housing and psychological issues.

On March 2000, the DCYF petitioned the family court to terminate the respondent’s parental rights to the six children pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 15-7-7(a)(3). Following a hearing, a family court found that the DCYF made reasonable efforts to encourage the parental relationship and granted the petition.

Before terminating a parent’s rights under § 15-7-7(a)(3), a family court judge must find that the parents were offered or received services to correct the situation which led to the child being placed. On appeal, respondent argued that the DCYF failed to make reasonable efforts to unify her with her family before petitioning to terminate her parental rights.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court held that DCYF offered a number of services to help the respondent resolve her family issues, including child protection, domestic violence, parenting skills and, housing and employment. DCYF referred the respondent to at least ten different agencies and professionals to address her problems. The respondent, however, did not keep her appointments. Through her actions, the court held that the respondent demonstrated a reluctance to keep her children away from her husband who abused her family.

Respondent claimed that she suffered from Battered Women’s Syndrome (BWS) and, therefore, DCYF had an affirmative duty to keep the abusive father away from her family. The Rhode Island Supreme Court has recognized BWS as a mental condition that has legal consequences. However, a party suffering from BWS must prove its existence by a preponderance of the evidence. Here, the respondent offered no evidence at trial to establish that she suffered from BWS. Therefore, the state high court held she waived the issue.

For these reasons, the court denied the appeal and affirmed the family court judgment.

Bilodeau Capalbo, LLC’s seasoned family law team is prepared to aid Rhode Island residents with a range of family law issues. Call (401) 400-8182 to schedule your complimentary consultation today.

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