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Rhode Island Supreme Court Upholds Termination of Mother’s Parental Rights

In a recent case, the Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld a district court judge’s decision to terminate a mother’s parental rights, partially due to her mental health issues. The case began when the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) removed the mother’s newborn child after receiving a “hotline” call. The mother also had a pending case with DCYF involving the custody of her four older children. According to several DCYF caseworkers, the DCYF developed a case plan requiring the mother to accept mental health and domestic violence services, learn skills for meeting her child’s needs, and sign releases of information so DCYF could coordinate with her mental health providers. Several caseworkers observed that the mother’s behavior was erratic, inconsistent, and not acceptable in her child’s presence. She also refused to sign the releases, citing concerns over sharing her private health information. Finally, when DCYF removed her newborn, the mother suffered a mental breakdown and was committed to a hospital for mental health treatment. At the hospital, she could not see her child because DCYF determined there was no way to supervise the visit. Ultimately, DCYF discharged the mother from her reunification program because of her erratic behavior and failure to comply with the mental health services plan.

The trial court granted DCYF’s petition to terminate the mother’s parental rights. Specifically, DCYF had sufficiently proven that it offered the mother services to correct the situation that led to the separation, and the mother was unfit based on her “seriously detrimental” mental health symptoms. On appeal, the mother argued that the district court erred in finding that the DCYF made reasonable efforts at reunification when she was hospitalized. She further alleged that DCYF failed to offer services reasonably designed to address her mental health needs. However, the Rhode Island Supreme Court court rejected these claims.

The Reasonable Efforts Standard

As the court explained, DCYF must prove by clear and convincing evidence that it made “reasonable efforts to encourage and strengthen the parental relationship” before a court can terminate a parent’s rights. Rhode Island courts must determine the reasonableness of DCYF’s efforts based on the particular facts of each case.

The Court’s Decision

Ultimately, the court found that the district judge did not err in determining the DCYF made reasonable efforts at reunification. DCYF made ongoing requests for the mother to sign releases, which the mother refused. Then, her hospitalization further impeded DCYF’s ability to communicate with her. Additionally, during her hospitalization, visitations with her child became virtually impossible because there was no opportunity for supervised visitation. Because DCYF made ongoing attempts to communicate despite these setbacks, the agency’s efforts were reasonable, given the unfortunate circumstances.

Provision of Mental Health Services

The court also rejected the mother’s argument that DCYF failed to employ “reasonable efforts” because it did not provide services during her hospitalization. As the court explained, the law does not require DCYF to act as the sole service provider to the parents of children in DCYF custody. Rather, DCYF can offer services, or the parent can receive them elsewhere. Because the mother was receiving mental health services at the hospital, DCYF had no obligation to provide additional services. The court also credited caseworkers’ testimony that the hospital staff would not acknowledge the mother’s presence at the hospital, meaning the DCYF would have to go to extraordinary lengths to work with staff to provide services. DCYF thereby met its burden of proving that the mother received services to correct the situation that led to her child’s removal. Accordingly, the high court upheld the district court’s decision to terminate the mother’s parental rights.

Skilled Legal Services for Parents in Custody Proceedings

If you or a loved one is undergoing a custody or termination proceeding, it is crucial that you have an experienced Rhode Island family law attorney to represent you. Trial judges may unfairly credit DCFY’s claims unless a skilled representative can advocate for your side of the story. The attorneys at Bilodeau Capalbo possess years of experience navigating the complicated child welfare system to help reunite families. Through our compassionate representation, we will defend your right to maintain the care of your children. To schedule a free consultation and discuss your case, call us at 401-300-4055.

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