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Rhode Island Supreme Court Upholds Termination of Incarcerated Father’s Parental Rights

Rhode Island family law allows for the termination of an individual’s parental rights under certain circumstances. In a recent case, a father (the respondent) appealed the Rhode Island Family Court’s decision to terminate his parental rights.

On November 19, 2013, the petitioners filed two adoption petitions in Family Court so that one petitioner might become the legal father of the other petitioner’s two children. The respondent, and legal father of the children at the time, was incarcerated in Massachusetts and refused to consent to the adoptions. As a result, petitioners moved to terminate respondent’s parental rights with respect to the two children. A trial was held before a Family Court justice on August 14, September 3, September 10, and December 15 of 2014. The trial justice ultimately terminated respondent’s parental rights. This past winter, the Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld the termination, holding that respondent abandoned his children.

The trial justice indicated that respondent’s lack of contact with and financial support for the children was “painfully evident,” noting that there was such a lack even when respondent was not incarcerated. Specifically, the justice found that respondent’s last contact with both children was on November 9, 2011, that he had never provided child support, and only sent occasional gifts.

The trial justice pointed to respondent’s long history of incarceration and the petitioners’ and children‘s wishes as being significant factors in her decision. She ultimately found, by clear and convincing evidence, that respondent was unfit as a parent because he had “failed to provide support for these two children, and had failed to have any contact with them for a period of more than six months prior to the filing of the Adoption Petition. The trial justice further found that it would be in the best interests of the children to terminate respondent’s parental rights so that their stepfather might adopt them. On the same day, she entered a decree terminating respondent’s parental rights.

On appeal, respondent contended that the trial justice erred in finding: (1) that he was unfit where unfitness had not been alleged as a ground in the petition; (2) that he had the financial ability to provide proper care, maintenance and support during his incarceration; and (3) that termination of his parental rights would serve the best interests of the children.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court held that respondent’s first argument was unavailing. Respondent never objected to petitioners’ submission of evidence to the Family Court on the issues of unfitness, willful neglect to provide proper care, maintenance and support, or abandonment. Nor did he ever object to petitioners’ purported failure to specify these statutory grounds in the adoption petition. Upon a thorough review of the record, the court saw nothing that would cause it to make an exception to their well-settled raise or waive jurisprudence. Accordingly, it was their view that respondent’s first contention on appeal had been waived.

The court further held that respondent’s remaining arguments were similarly unconvincing and need not be addressed at any length because respondent’s parental rights were properly terminated on the ground of abandonment. The state high court has on numerous occasions upheld the termination of parental rights of parents who were incarcerated—as respondent had been for a substantial portion of the children’s lives. An incarcerated parent who fails to actively engage in efforts to contact his or her child despite having opportunities to do so runs the very real risk of it being held that the parent has abandoned the child.

Having carefully reviewed the record and the findings of fact of the trial justice, the Rhode Island Supreme Court concluded that the trial court did not err in finding, by clear and convincing evidence, that the respondent had abandoned the children for the six-month period. Accordingly, the court affirmed the decree of the Family Court terminating the respondent’s parental rights with respect to the children.

At Bilodeau Capalbo, LLC, our knowledgeable family law attorneys are ready to get started helping you defend your parental rights. Call (401) 400-8182 or schedule your consultation today.

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