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Rhode Island Supreme Court Holds Family Court Rightly Terminated Father’s Parental Rights Following Abuse

In March 2012, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) was apprised of an alleged incident of domestic violence that occurred in Massachusetts between a minor and his father. This ultimately led to the termination of his parental rights under Rhode Island family law.

Originally, DCYF was informed that the father attempted to quell his 10-month-old child’s crying by pinching, slapping, and throwing the child against a wall, which the mother claimed rendered the child unconscious. This past winter, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that the Family Court had correctly terminated the father’s parental rights.

On March 7, 2012, a petition for dependency and abuse was filed ex parte against the parents in Rhode Island, where they both reside, and the father was charged in Massachusetts with felony crimes arising from the alleged assault. A no-contact order was issued on March 14, 2012 and entered on April 26, 2012, which prohibited the father from having any contact with the minor. On September 27, 2013, the father was convicted of reckless endangerment of a child and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon in Massachusetts by a jury.

On November 25, 2013, DCYF filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of the parents. The father declined to voluntarily relinquish his parental rights, and the case proceeded to trial on September 22 and 29, 2014. The father remained incarcerated in Massachusetts. At trial, the Family Court justice heard testimony from a social caseworker. Due to the circumstances, including the father’s status as a child abuser, the social worker testified that the father was not a parent that DCYF was looking to reunify with his child at the time.

The Family Court justice issued a written decision on January 5, 2015, and ordered the termination of the father’s parental rights. The court was satisfied that the father (respondent) had notice of the termination petition and was adequately represented by counsel. The father appealed.

Before the Rhode Island Supreme Court, the father claimed that many of the Family Court justice’s factual findings were clearly erroneous. For instance, he pointed to the finding that the paternity testing was requested because the father contested paternity; the father professed that he requested paternity to establish his rights. However, the state high court held that it was undisputed that the father requested a paternity test to verify the one fact that a paternity test discloses—whether he was the child’s father.

The father also maintained that he never received the results of that test. However, the caseworker testified that she forwarded the results to the Family Court, and the record disclosed that the father wrote to the caseworker less than a month later asking that the child be placed with his family. Regardless, the father’s receipt of the results was immaterial to the Family Court justice’s findings.

The father next claimed that a certified copy of his conviction was not produced at trial. The court was satisfied that this circumstance was not material because neither ground for termination required proof of conviction, and the conviction was corroborated by the caseworker and the father’s testimony.

The father also posited that the return of service was neither stamped nor notarized and that he was not arraigned on the petition. However, a careful review of the record revealed that the father was never found in default; that he was represented by counsel throughout the pendency of the termination petition; and that he was afforded an opportunity to participate at the trial over telephone. The court was satisfied that these arguments were immaterial to the outcome of the case.

The father next argued that the Family Court justice erroneously found that he was unable to care for his son for an extended period of time due to his imprisonment and, alternatively, that he abandoned the child. Specifically, the father claimed that he was not advised about the minor’s status and that his incarceration and the no-contact orders prevented him from providing support to the child.

With respect to his incarceration as a ground for termination, the father argued that DCYF failed to establish that it made reasonable efforts to strengthen the parental relationship between the father and the child. Because the state high court believed that the Family Court justice correctly concluded that respondent abandoned his son, it did not feel the need to address the incarceration additional basis for termination.

As the Family Court justice explicitly acknowledged, the father’s incarceration was a direct result of inflicting physical abuse on the child. DCYF, the Rhode Island Supreme Court explained, has no obligation to undertake reasonable efforts to strengthen the parental bond or to reunify, when a parent is deemed unfit on the basis of abandonment. Accordingly, the lack of contact and communication fell squarely on the father. The record clearly indicated that the respondent had the addresses for both the Family Court and DCYF, and he was also represented by counsel in Massachusetts. Yet, despite additional opportunities, the respondent made but two attempts to communicate with DCYF and utterly failed to seek contact with his child. Therefore, the court was satisfied that the Family Court justice properly held that the father had effectively abandoned the minor because he had had no meaningful contact with his son since March 2012.

The caring family law attorneys at Bilodeau Capalbo, LLC are eager to help you defend your parental rights. Call (401) 400-8182 or schedule your complimentary consultation today.

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