Rhode Island family law is a complex subject, one that often requires a knowledgeable attorney to parse its various nuances. In some instances, Family Court decisions that do not reach an outcome favorable to one party can be appealed. Such were the circumstances surrounding one fairly recent Rhode Island case.
On January 2, 2014, the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) filed a petition in Family Court, alleging that the parents “neglected” and “abused” their daughter. In that petition, DCYF specifically alleged that the parents failed to provide the child with a minimum degree of care, supervision, or guardianship; that the child was without proper parental care and supervision; that the parents inflicted or allowed to be inflicted physical injury upon the child; and that the parents created or allowed to be created a substantial risk of physical injury to the child. This summer, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that the Family Court erred in finding that the mother abused and neglected the child.
A trial on the petition was held before a justice of the Family Court from June to September of 2014. After having reviewed the testimony and other evidence, the trial justice issued a written decision on November 10, 2014. In that decision, she preliminarily noted that the child suffered an oblique femur fracture to her right leg, which is highly unusual in a non-mobile child.
From the trial justice’s vantage point, there were too many unanswered questions and too many answers that did not fit the facts, including the child’s resulting injury. Having reviewed the medical testimony at trial, she was unpersuaded by the contention that the child fell off the bed; instead, she was convinced that the child’s injury was anything but accidental. Although the trial justice remarked that she was not certain as to how this injury occurred, she nonetheless found that there was no medical explanation to support the parents’ contention that the child was injured as a result of a fall from the bed. The trial justice ultimately concluded that there was no doubt that both parents know how this injury occurred but neither parent had told the truth.
The trial justice found that the child was neglected and abused by the mother and father, and she proceeded to order that the child be committed to the care, custody, and control of DCYF.
On appeal before the Rhode Island Supreme Court, the mother argued that the trial justice erred as a matter of law and abused her discretion in making these findings.
The state high court agreed and held that the trial justice erred in finding that the mother had abused and neglected the child. The court reasoned that the mother testified that she was not present at the time of her daughter’s injury, and no evidence to the contrary was presented.
The court held that the trial court’s conclusions that it was “bizarre and unusual” that the mother was “conveniently” out of the house running errands when the child was injured and that the mother did not specifically refer to her daughter by name during her testimony did not constitute adequate predicates for the finding of abuse and neglect. Nor, the court reasoned, should the fact that the mother chose not “to touch, hug, hold or console” the child in the brief moment she had until the emergency responders arrived have served as an indication of any such neglect or abuse. The state high court therefore concluded that the evidence presented was insufficient to permit a reasonable inference to be drawn that the mother had abused the child.
For these reasons, the court vacated the decree of the Family Court as it pertained to the mother.
At Bilodeau Capalbo, LLC, we are ready to help you defend your parental rights. Call (401) 400-8182 or schedule your consultation with our caring Rhode Island family law team today.
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