Guardian ad Litem Reports are Confidential

After you receive the GAL report and read it, your first instinct might be to share the document with family, friends and perhaps professionals such as therapists or teachers. It is important to hold back on this urge because the GAL report is confidential.

Circuit Court Rule 2.15 states: “Written reports of the guardian ad litem shall be kept in an envelope marked confidential within the court file, and shall only be disclosed to parties or attorneys to the action.” The GAL Report is not part of the public court file that is accessible to any person with enough curiosity to travel to the courthouse to review the file. Thus, makes sure you obtain either agreement from any other party to the case or a court order allowing the GAL report to be disseminated.

Courthouse Divorce File: What's Private?

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” 
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Gabriel García Márquez: a Life

The public thirsts for gossip, apparent in websites like TMZ and Perz Hilton. Celebrity splits are big news such as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes to Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon. While most of us do not enjoy celebrity status, the small town rumor mill can be just as virulent as celebrity gossip. Divorce litigants should beware the rules regarding public access to their divorce file. Anyone can head down to the local courthouse and view all the happenings in the neighbor's divorce or co-worker's custody battle.  

The prominent case on this issue is the Petition of Keene Sentinel issued by the New Hampshire Supreme Court on August 27, 1992. During the 1990 political campaign for New Hampshire’s Second congressional seat, The Keene Sentinel sought to gain access to one of the incumbent’s, Charles Douglas III’s divorce records. The clerk granted the Keene Sentinel only some of the divorce records, citing privacy concerns. The Keene Sentinel brought suit and Charles Douglas III sought to intervene, asking the Superior Court to dismiss the suit. The Superior Court ultimately denied the Keene Sentinel’s request.

The Keene Sentinel appealed, arguing that “disclosure should have been permitted pursuant to RSA chapter 91-A, the Right to Know Law.” The Supreme Court held that a party in a divorce proceeding cannot have the records sealed simply for the sake of general privacy concerns.  The Court held that “[b]efore a document is ordered sealed, the trial judge must determine that no reasonable alternative to nondisclosure exists.” If a trial judge does make such a determination, it must use the least restrictive means available to secure the parties’ privacy rights.

This generally requires that the orders, pleadings and other materials in the file are open to the public for viewing. An exception is a financial affidavit. A party is required by the court to complete and submit a sworn financial affidavit, detailing all income, property and debts. This document usually contains very personal information such as social security numbers, bank information and paystubs. Family Division Rule 2.16 and RSA 458:15-b requires financial affidavits to be confidential for non-parties. In practice, this means that the court file contains an envelope which the clerk will remove if you are not a party to the case. Financial affidavits filed in divorce, legal separation, annulment, or parenting petition cases shall be confidential to non-parties. Access to such financial affidavits shall be pursuant to Family Division Rule 1.30. However, a person not otherwise entitled to access may file a motion under Family Division Rule 1.30 to gain access to the financial affidavit. 

The Associated Press v. NH gives some context to the rule regarding financial affidavit confidentiality. The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued its holding in this case on December 30, 2005.   After RSA 458:15-b took effect on August 10, 2004, which, inter alia, made financial affidavits in divorce proceedings only accessible to parties to the proceeding and their attorneys of record, the Associated Press filed suit claiming the law was unconstitutional. The Associated Press argued that the law “violated the public’s right of access to court records” under the State Constitution, and that it was an impermissible restraint on freedom of speech per the State and Federal Constitutions.  The trial court determined that the law was not unconstitutional, and dismissed The Associated Press’ suit. The Associated Press appealed the trial court decision, arguing that the trial court erred in finding that the law was constitutional.

 The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court, and finding RSA 458:15-b constitutional. The Court ruled that although the public has a right to access government documents, including court documents, the right is not unlimited.  It opined that "the right of access may be overcome when a sufficiently compelling interest for nondisclosure is identified,” which included the compelling interest to prevent exposing divorce litigants to identify theft and fraud. The Court’s ruling was narrow, however, and only applied to keeping financial affidavits sealed. 

In general, the Court may upon request consider keeping confidential case-related materials for collateral cases that are already confidential pursuant to New Hampshire law. These include termination of parental rights, adoption, juvenile criminal records and abuse/neglect cases and DCYF records.  

 

Proposed Changes to a Parent's Right to Counsel in Abuse/Neglect Cases

A few years ago, during the state's fiscal crisis, the legislature did away with the statute requiring that any parent accused of abusing or neglecting their child in a child protection case be appointed an attorney to represent them. I posted here about my view that all parents should be entitled to counsel in abuse neglect proceedings. The issue was argued before the New Hampshire Supreme Court in In Re C.M, where the Court held that parents do not have a constitutional per se right to counsel, though appointment of counsel should be considered on a case by case basis. In July 2013, the legislature reinstated the statutory authority under RSA 169-C:10, II (a) requiring court appointment counsel for indigent parents. 

Now, there are proposed changes to a parent's statutory right to counsel which would require the attorney to withdraw following the dispositional hearing unless there was a court order noting the specific duration and purpose of the continued representation.. The New Hampshire Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Rules has requested comment from the bench, bar, legislature, executive branch or public. The report on the rule changes can be found here

A colleague of mine, Lucinda Hopkins, who is an experienced abuse neglect attorney, wrote to the New Hampshire Supreme Court Advisory a wonderful letter expressing why this rule change is ill advised. She has given me permission to share. I hope you will take a moment to read and perhaps reach out to the committee yourself to express your opinion. For more information on how to contact the committee for comment, see here


Date: 5 September 2014

To: New Hampshire Supreme Court Advisory
Committee on Rules
From: Lucinda Hopkins, Attorney at Law,
NH Bar ID # 1193
Re: Proposed Rule Change deeming parent's legal counsel withdrawn after neglect or abuse dispositional hearing

Dear Committee Members,

Let's start with the premise that a parent in a neglect or abuse matter should have legal representation. In a world where money is no object I doubt most people would object to legal representation for parents in a neglect or abuse proceeding. Thus, encroaching on legal representation for a parent in a neglect or abuse matter stems from financial considerations.

The second premise is the child is the paramount consideration in a neglect or abuse proceeding. I went to law school to advocate on behalf of children. After 30 plus years of practice I have a fair amount of experience which I hope will shed light on how legal counsel for parents not only serve to promote and protect the interests of the parents but also serve to safeguard the interests of the children.

The state's role is driven by policies that may coincide with the a child's interest but may also diverge. Otherwise, we would not need judicial oversight: the child protection system could act administratively. Removing children from their homes and severing family ties, however, carries significant societal implications. The court system serves as the proper forum when the state takes such actions.

Federal laws impose on the state agency the ideal of "permanency" and enforce this ideal by monetary incentives. This agency perspective may override what the child needs. Further, neglect and abuse law--as with all aspects of law--fluctuates. What is laudable today may--often through the efforts of legal advocates--come to be recognized as unacceptable.

A Guardian ad Litem, a party along with the state and parent, is not a legal advocate, most often not trained as a lawyer, and does not have the expertise or the role to legally advocate for a child. Neither the state nor the Guardian ad Litem possess the intimate knowledge and bond with the child that a parent does.

Since neglect or abuse proceedings are confidential, how children fare in the child welfare system remains a mystery. I know from my own experience that "permanency" has not always lived up to its ideal. I have heard from foster parents who adopted children, now adults, who I represented that when the children reached the age of majority sought out their birth parents and went to live with them. I have stayed in touch with children, now adults, who I represented who sought out and maintain contact with their birth parents. I have represented a parent in a neglect matter who lost her child to an adoptive family, where the child was abused and ended back in the system traumatized and psychologically damaged. I have been involved in a matter where the state confidently assured the court that a child was adoptable, a termination of parental rights was granted, and the child remained (at least during the time I was aware) unadopted and without any family whatsoever. I recall another case where the child eloquently expressed wanting both the parent and the foster parent to be part of the child's life.

I present these anecdotes to emphasize that the state and the Guardian ad Litem are not necessarily the ones speaking for what the children want. To the contrary, as they so often state, they are driven by the goals of permanency. I ask the committee to seriously consider how crucial legal representation is for questioning public policy and decisions permanently affecting and altering individual lives.

I would be astounded if the vast majority of neglect or abuse court cases did not involve individuals with minimal financial resources, disabilities, childhood trauma, dysfunctional family backgrounds, and scant education. Post-dispositional hearing is where legal advocacy most helps a parent. Some--but not all--of the critical issues that arise where a parent needs legal expertise and result in reunification or termination of parental rights include:

 

  • Whether the state needs a psychological evaluation and if so how to ensure an evaluation is fair and thorough or lacks validity.
  • How to navigate housing requirements by the state that the parent have a certain amount of bedrooms for the children's return home when the parent does not have custody of the children.
  • Whether a bonding assessment is necessary and if so, how a fair evaluation can best be conducted.
  • Whether a parent aide is accommodating a parent's disability, and if not, what accommodations are needed
  • Whether the siblings' bonds are appropriately considered.
  • Consideration of how best to address siblings' differing wants and needs.
  • How to address domestic violence issues and their effect on permanently severing a parent's rights.
  • How to address substance abuse issues and their effect on permanently severing a parent's rights.
  • How to address medical issues and their effect on permanently severing a parent's rights.
  • Holding the state accountable for implementation of services that are reasonable and appropriate.
  • Countering the presentation of evidence as relevant or material and presenting relevant or material information that may not be disclosed.
  • Understanding how other laws, such as the American with Disabilities Act, guardianship statutes, and domestic relations and immigration laws relate to a neglect or abuse proceeding.
  • How incarceration relates to compliance with neglect or abuse dispositional orders.
  • Whether visitation provisions are unduly restrictive and if so, whether the court or the state has the discretion to decide visitation.
  • Whether a child should have legal counsel.
  • Whether the state has to comply with an order for mediating an alternative long-term living arrangement for the child or an open adoption.
  • Whether an interlocutory appeal or writ of certiorari should be filed to protect a parent's rights before a termination of parental rights is filed.
  • Ensuring that discovery is forthcoming in order to assess a parent's compliance with dispositional orders and to counter disputed representations.
  • Understanding and ensuring compliance with the state's policies for neglect and abuse matters.
  • Investigating and advocating in relation to relative placement particularly when such placement is disputed (either by the agency or the parent).
  • Understanding the inner workings of the Interstate Compact on Placement of Children Act: how to facilitate the administrative process in each state.
  • Understanding how the Indian Child Welfare Act may impact a neglect or abuse proceeding.
  • Analyzing jurisdictional issues relating to a neglect or abuse proceeding with another proceeding relating to jurisdiction of the child.
  • Understanding how the Uniform Child Custody and Jurisdiction Act relates to a neglect or abuse proceeding.
  • Understanding available resources, such as shelters, what shelters are appropriate, and alternatives when factors prevent access.
  • Understanding mental illness, treatment, and medication needs.
  • Understanding substance abuse, treatment, and compliance.
  • Understanding parole or probation conditions in conjunction with dispositional orders.
  • Knowledge and appreciation of a parent's constitutional rights and the ability to argue those rights.

Lest you think I went through some kind of checklist or reviewed laws relating to neglect or abuse proceedings, the following list was written off the top of my head from memory. I have encountered each of these issues. From conversations with fellow practitioners they have grappled with these along with other issues after a dispositional hearing. The list is nowhere complete.

I hope I have conveyed the ultimate difference legal representation can make in a neglect or abuse proceeding post-dispositional. I also hope I have caused you to consider that the state and the Guardian ad Litem are not necessarily always right when it comes to promoting a child's interest. If this were so, we could dispense with court proceedings.

I ask you to consider also that a parent, the one who has been most intimately connected to the child, trusts her or his lawyer. The parent will confide in the lawyer and divulge information to the lawyer that the parent may not convey to the state, the Guardian ad Litem, or the court. The parent often does not appreciate the need for advocacy. The lawyer also will help the parent when that parent is not up to the responsibility of adequately caring for a child by counseling the parent to engage in the process in a way that minimizes the suffering for everyone.

Most importantly, the child did not come into world alone. I have found it best to be humble in expecting prevailing laws to have all the answers. To remove a parent's lawyer from a neglect or abuse proceeding when the lawyer's services are most needed, removes the opportunity to question laws and decisions that need to be challenged. The court needs a full adversarial system to get the full picture. Neither the state nor the Guardian ad Litem compensates for the parent's voice. Parents need legal representation for their voices to be heard. Children, the paramount consideration, need--as much as the voices of the state and Guardian ad Litem--to have the voices of their parents heard.

Sincerely,

Lucinda Hopkins
603.361.8168
www.nhlawhelp.com

In the Matter of Reena D: Guardian bears burden of proof in termination of guardianship established by consent

The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an opinion In the Matter of Reena D. on December 28, 2011. 

The Facts

In 2002, mother and father petitioned the court to grant guardianship of their twenty-two month old daughter Reena to the paternal grandfather and his wife. The purpose of the guardianship was to allow mother and father to travel to India to start a tile business and visit with the mother’s family. The court appointed the grandfather and his wife as Reena’s guardians.

In 2003, the grandfather died and his wife was appointed as sole guardian of Reena. Later that year, the mother and father petitioned to terminate the guardianship, and then entered into a temporary stipulation with the guardian allowing the guardianship to continue while the father obtained an alcohol assessment. A hearing on the motion to terminate would be held two months after the submission of the assessment.

Six months later, the guardian moved to dismiss the motion to terminate, and the court denied the termination of the guardianship without prejudice. In 2007, the parents renewed their motion to terminate the guardianship. A trial was conducted in 2009, where the father submitted the required alcohol assessment on the first day. The trial court placed the burden of proof, by a preponderance of the evidence, on the parents to show “that substitution or supplementation of parental care and supervision [was] no longer necessary to provide for [their daughter’s] essential physical and safety needs” and that terminating the guardianship would not “adversely affect [their daughter’s] psychological well-being.” The court determined that the parents had failed to meet their burden and denied the termination of the guardianship.   

The Appeal

The father appealed the decision denying the termination of the guardianship over his daughter. He argues that the trial court violated his state and federal constitutional rights by requiring him and his wife to bear the burden of proof to terminate the guardianship. He asserts that it is the respondent who should have the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the guardianship was necessary to provide for Reena’s essential physical and safety needs and to prevent significant psychological harm to her.

The Holding

In a guardianship established by consent, the guardian bears the burden of proof by clear and convincing  “that substitution or supplementation of parental care and supervision” is “necessary to provide for the essential physical and safety needs of the minor” and that terminating the guardianship will “adversely affect the minor’s psychological well-being.” The court determined that a fit parent, that is one who has not been adjudicated unfit, is entitled to the Troxel presumption that a fit parent will act in the best interests of their child. Thus, where a guardianship has been established by consent, a parent remains a fit parent and it is the guardian who must carry the burden of proof articulated in RSA 463:15, V. The court held that the clear and convincing standard applies, which was in keeping with other holdings of the court in disputes between parents and nonparents over custody of a minor such as In the Matter of R.A. & J.M. and In re Guardianship of Nicholas P.

Because the trial court applied the incorrect burden of proof, the Supreme Court vacated the order denying the termination of the guardianship and remanded it for further proceedings.

The Takeaway

When establishing a guardianship, the parent who consents to the guardianship will have an easier path to terminating the guardianship.

An interesting issue will occur for a guardianship established by consent and adjudication. It is often the case where one parent consents to the guardianship, while the other objects and the guardianship is granted over the objection. In a proceeding to terminate the guardianship, the parent who contested the guardianship must carry the burden of proof, where the parent who consented shifts the burden to the guardian. Having different burdens in the same matter will make things interesting.  

NH Supreme Court requests amicus briefs on topic of right to counsel in abuse and neglect cases

Since July 2011, indigent parents accused of abuse or neglect have had to manage the court system without an attorney. Recent legislative changes removed the statutory requirement contained in RSA 169-C:10, II(a) that counsel be appointed for requiring appointed counsel for indigent parents. However, the question still remains whether the parents have a constitutional right to counsel under the New Hampshire constitution.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court is now faced with that question, and has called for amicus briefs or memorandum on the following question:

Does the Due Process Clause of the New Hampshire Constitution (Part 1, Articles 2 and 15) or the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution require the appointment of counsel for an indigent parent from whom the State seeks to take custody of a minor child based on allegations of neglect or abuse? 

I believe the civil right to counsel for parents accused of abuse or neglect is a fundamental right, as basic as the right to an attorney in criminal matters. My New Hampshire Bar News opinion and blog post provide a more detailed analysis. I am interested to hear your opinion so feel free to leave a comment. 

Representation of Accused Parents is Fundamental Right

Republished here, my opinion from the recent Bar News regarding the appointment of counsel for parents in abuse and neglect proceedings:

Few rights can be argued to be more fundamental then the right to raise and care for one’s children. In recognition of that right, New Hampshire has long appointed counsel to represent indigent parents in abuse and neglect proceedings who face the removal of their children from their care by the State. The NH Supreme Court recognized in Shelby R. that "abuse and neglect proceedings can harm, and in some cases irreparably damage, family and marital relationships."

Despite the constitutional protections afforded to parents, recent passage of HB2 [the budget "trailer bill"] and the issuance of Circuit Court Administrative Order 2011-01 deprives indigent parents accused of abuse and neglect of the statutory right to be represented by an attorney at all stages of the proceedings. The Administrative Order prohibits any new appointments of counsel after July 1, 2011, and orders the automatic withdrawal of counsel after the issuance of dispositional orders for attorneys appointed prior to July 1, 2011. However, legislative enactments cannot override a constitutional protection and the Courts have an affirmative duty to invalidate a statute that violates a person’s constitutional rights.

Fundamental fairness requires government conduct to conform to the community’s sense of justice, decency and fair play. Without the protections of counsel, a parent facing allegations under the Child Protection Act stands little chance of defending himself against the state. As the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in Gideon v. Wainwright, "even an intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law." Oftentimes the parents involved in abuse and neglect cases are uneducated, unsophisticated, frightened and do not have the wherewithal to understand the process. They have no skills in asking questions, raising objections, or admitting evidence. They lack knowledge of the law and are at an extreme disadvantage when questions of law arise.

On the other hand, the State, in presenting its case, has the ability, funds and know-how to subpoena witnesses, hire expert witnesses, obtain medical or psychological evaluations of the children or the parents, and investigate the claims and allegations involved in a petition. The State employs attorneys to put on the State’s case and act on its behalf. The parent’s fundamental, natural and essential rights require that counsel be appointed to assist a parent in mounting their defense and protecting their rights.

Additionally, abuse and neglect proceedings can have the most serious of consequences to parental rights: the termination of parental rights. As the NH Supreme Court wrote in State v. Robert H., "the loss of one’s children can be viewed as a sanction more severe than imprisonment." The abuse and neglect proceedings become the grounds upon which the state relies on in a termination of parental rights proceeding. The finding of abuse or neglect, the parent’s progress throughout the case, the status of the parent’s compliance with the dispositional orders, and the alleged failure of a parent to correct the conditions that led to the finding of neglect are the framework of the state’s TPR case. Without counsel guiding and protecting the parent in the underlying abuse and neglect proceeding, appointing counsel in the TPR is too little too late to safeguard the parent’s constitutional rights.

In contrast to other state cuts that have drawn the attention of the media and the public, the prohibition on appointed abuse and neglect counsel for indigent parents has captured little notice. Few of us can imagine the state coming into our home and removing our children, and not having the financial ability to protect our rights and family and advocate for the return of our children. The elimination of parent attorneys is shameful act by a legislature willing to sacrifice justice for the bottom line. As this opinion goes to publication, abuse and neglect parent attorneys across the state are mounting a challenge, and the support of the Bar and the public is crucial to its success. In the meantime, parents will have to navigate the abuse and neglect system without advice of counsel and try their best to advocate for themselves and their children.

After TPR & Adoption: Grandparents may petition for visitation rights

Grandparent’s rights vary from state to state. In New Hampshire, grandparent’s visitation rights are specifically designated by statute. However, obtaining visitation is not as easy as filing a petition and being granted time with one’s grandchildren. In order to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Troxel v. Granville, which struck down a breathtakingly broad Washington state statute that allowed any third party to sue for visitation over the objection of the parents and the outcome determined solely by the judge’s estimation of the child’s best interests, New Hampshire restricts the situations in which a grandparent can petition to establish visitation.

In order to pursue grandparent visitation, there must be an absence of a nuclear family, “whether divorce, death, relinquishment or termination of parental rights, or other cause.” Prior to the recent New Hampshire Supreme Court opinion In Re Athena D., it was unsettled whether a new nuclear family, brought about by the termination of parental rights and the adoption of the child, would cut off the rights of natural grandparents to visitation. The take away from Athena D. is that “petitions for grandparent visitation in the case of termination of parental rights are to be treated in the same manner as in the case of the death of a parent, stepparent adoption, or unwed parents.”

The Athena D. holding is especially important for the protection of society’s most vulnerable children. Children who are the subject of cases brought under the Child Protection Act, and subsequently state-action termination proceedings, may have indispensable bonds with their natural grandparents that must be preserved. While the children may need to be protected from the parents, and adopted into a new family, a child’s best interest may demand continued contact with the natural grandparents over the objection of the adoptive parents. This holding allows for that, so long as the grandparents meet the other requirements of a petition for grandparent’s visitation rights as set forth in RSA 461-A:13.

Coming Changes and Challenges to New Hampshire Parents' Right to Counsel in Abuse and Neglect Proceedings

New Hampshire has long recognized that a parent's right to raise and care for one's child is a fundamental constitutional right. In recognition of that right, there has been a statutory right to counsel for parent's facing termination of parental rights proceedings and in abuse and neglect cases. In addition to the statutory authority, the New Hampshire Supreme Court has held that stepparents who are accused of abuse or neglect, and are household members, have the right to counsel if they cannot afford one.

However, the state's budget, which has passed the house and the senate and Governor Lynch has announced his intention to allow it to become law without his signature, changes the statutory authority and the ability of the state to pay for appointed counsel for parents in abuse and neglect cases. HB2, Section 79 strikes the portion of RSA 169-C:10, II(a) mandating the court appointment of an attorney for accused, indigent parents in abuse and neglect proceedings. On June 23, 2011, Judge Kelly, the administrative judge for the Family Division, issued an administrative order that orders as follows:

  • Until June 30, 2011, attorneys shall continue to be appointed to represent an indigent parent only where mandated by RSA169-C:10, II(a), i.e. in cases where an indigent parent is alleged to have neglected or abused his or her child.
  • Effective July 1, 2011, counsel shall not be appointed for indigent parents in abuse and neglect cases under RSA chapter 169-C.
  • Effective July 1, 2011, all appointments of counsel, including existing appointments, to represent indigent parents in abuse and neglect cases shall terminate upon the issuance of the dispositional order pursuant to RSA 169-C:19.

Though the legislature may believe that they can simply defund and eliminate the statute requiring appointed counsel for indigent parents, I would argue that they are wrong. In addition to the statutory protections that have been afforded to indigent parents in abuse and neglect case, the New Hampshire Constitution protects parents. The Shelby Court held that "due process requires the appointment of counsel to a stepparent accused of abuse or neglect under RSA chapter 169-C." The Court recognized that "abuse and neglect proceedings can harm, and in some cases irreparably damage, family and marital relationships." While the Court has consistently held that a natural parent's role in family life is a fundamental liberty interest under the constitution, due to the statutory protections requiring the appointment of counsel for accused parents, the Court has not yet been called on to recognize the due process right of a parent to counsel in abuse and neglect proceedings. However, given the holding that accused stepparents are entitled counsel, it is difficult to imagine that a parent would not have the same due process right. 

What happens from here? I expect that a constitutional challenge will be brought, in one of a variety of methods, and the Supreme Court will be called upon to recognize a parent's constitutional right to counsel in abuse and neglect proceedings. Until then, parents will have to navigate the abuse and neglect system without advice or counsel and try their best to advocate for themselves and their children.