In re Deven O: Father rebutted presumption of abandonment in termination of parental rights

The Supreme Court issued In Re Deven O. on November 7, 2013.

The Facts

Deven was born in June 2006 and lived with his parents until they split up in December 2006. Deven lived with his mother and visited with his father a few days each month until December 2007, when father was arrested and incarcerated for armed robbery. Mother visited father in prison, but Deven visited just once. When father was released to a half-way house in June 2010, father visited with Deven multiple times per week over the next three months. In September 2010, mother told father that she did not want him visiting with Deven until he “straightened out his life.”

In October 2010, mother filed a petition to change Deven’s name. Although she knew father had been released from prison, she listed father’s address as the prison. Father found out about the name change in December 2010 after she posted about it online. Father contacted mother that month to arrange for Christmas gifts. In March 2011, father began to attempt to arrange for parenting time with Deven by calling mother. He also contacted mother’s father for help try to arrange visits. When these efforts failed, he filed a parenting petition in December 2011. Mother countered by filing a petition to terminate father’s parental rights.

Following a trial, the court terminated the father’s parental rights on the grounds of abandonment and failure to support, and made a finding that the termination was in Deven’s best interest. 

The Appeal

The father appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there were grounds to terminate his parental rights. The father also asserted that he had no legal obligation to support the child because he was not listed on the birth certificate and there was no child support order. 

The Holding

The Supreme Court held that the mother failed to sustain her heavy burden and that there was insufficient evidence to support the termination of father’s parental rights. Parental rights are a fundamental liberty interest that cannot be pushed aside because a person has not been a model parent. The Court emphasized that a finding that six months passed without communication between the parent and child is only the first step in the analysis, and the trial court must consider the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the presumption of abandonment has been rebutted. The Supreme Court reminded trial courts to consider whether the parent's conduct "evidences a willingness to take on responsibility and concern for the child's physical and emotional care and well-being." Here, although there was a six month period without contact, the evidence of father’s repeated efforts to make contact with Deven prior to his filing of a parenting petition rebutted the presumption.

The Court also considered the mother’s refusal to allow access to the child. The Court looked to its opinion in In Re Sheena B., where the court determined that there could be no abandonment where the separation between a parent and child was caused solely by the other parent. Thus, the Court held, when considering the father's efforts to see Deven and the mother's refusal to allow the contact, that there was “insufficient evidence to support a finding of a settled purpose to abandon the child.”

The Supreme Court notes that the statute does not define, nor has the Court addressed, what it means to be “financially able” to provide a child with necessary subsistence, education or other care as RSA 170-C:5,II. However, here, the Court did not need to address this issue because it found that the evidence was insufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that father was financially able but failed to support Deven.

The Takeaway

Deven O. was third in a string of termination of parental rights cases the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued opinions on in 2013. See In re Sophia-Marie H. & In re Faith T. All were private terminations where a parent or guardian sought termination of the rights of a parent (as opposed to DCYF initiated case). In each case, the Supreme Court emphasized that parental rights are “natural, essential, and inherent” within the meaning of the Constitution of New Hampshire and refused to terminate parental rights. Parental rights cannot be ignored because a person has not been an ideal parent.  These three cases act as a large neon caution sign for trial courts in termination proceedings.

Over-the-counter paternity test sold at Walgreens, Rite-Aid and CVS

The Identigene DNA Paternity Test Kit  is now sold in stores and online at WalgreensRite-Aid and CVS, which makes the test available at over 15,000 retail stores in 48 states. The test kit is sold for $29.99 and requires a do-it-yourself cheek swab. The DNA samples, along with consent forms, are then sent to the lab in a postage prepaid envelope and with payment for the additional lab fee of $119.00.  The confidential DNA test results are reported within three to five days by mail or online.  

However, parents should be warned that the do-it-yourself process may not be admissable in court. DNA testing for legal purposes requires coordinating specific specimen collection and chain-of-custody procedures with a disinterested third-party. There is an additional $200.00 fee for this process.

 Source Post: Diana L. Skaggs of the Divorce Law Journal   

 

N.H. Supreme Court holds nonbiological parent may seek parental rights and responsibilities

The New Hampshire Supreme Court released the opinion for In the Matter of J.B. and J.G. on August 6, 2008 holding that a man, who is not the biological father of a child, has standing to seek parental rights and responsibilities under the New Hampshire statute.

The facts of the case are as follows: The respondent, J.G., gave birth to a child, A.B., in 2001. The petitioner, J.B., was listed as the father on the birth certificate. In addition both parties executed an Affidavit of Paternity at the time of the child’s birth which stated that J.B. was the father. While the parties had never married and did not live together, J.B. had consistently maintained contact with the A.B. and in 2004 J.G. sought and obtained an order of child support against J.B.

After a disagreement about the A.B.’s schooling, J.B. filed a parenting petition in the family division to establish his parental rights and responsibilities. In response, J.G. alleged that J.B. was not the A.B.’s father. The trial court ordered a paternity test which showed that J.B. was not A.B.’s biological father.

Based on the test results J.G. moved to dismiss J.B.’s petition because he was not the biological father and therefore did not have rights under RSA 461-A and that granting him parental rights would violate her constitutional right as a natural parent. The trial court granted her motion to dismiss and then later reversed which prompted J.G. to file this appeal of that decision.

Therefore, the meat of the opinion is the question of whether J.B. may maintain a parenting petition under the parental rights and responsibilities act, when he is neither a stepparent, biological parent, or grandparent to the child? The court examines 461-A:1, IV which states that parental rights and responsibilities are defined as: “all rights and responsibilities parents have concerning their child”. However, it does not specifically define the term “parent”. The court determined that while the DNA testing proves that J.B. is not the biological father that in itself is not fatal to his request for parental rights under the statute so long as he alleges sufficient facts to establish his status as a parent by other means.

The court holds that J.B. meets the threshold to establish himself as a parent for two reasons.

1)      In order to impose an obligation of child support there needs to be an establishment of paternity. Therefore, when J.G. sought and received a child support order she acknowledged that J.B was A.B.’s parent.

2)      Also, according to RSA 5-C:24 paternity may be established when an affidavit is filed with the clerk of the town where the birth occurred. This has a legal effect of establishing paternity without requiring further action.

Finally, the court holds that there is no unconstitutional intrusion of J.G.’s right to raise and care for A.B. because J.B. is also A.B.’s parent and enjoys rights equal to J.G.’s.

Crusco Law Office law clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this blog post.

Prior voluntary acknowledgement of paternity precludes future genetic marker testing

The New Hampshire Supreme Court released an opinion today In the Matter of Kevin Gendron and Jody Plaistek that held that a voluntary acknowledgement of paternity executed in Massachusetts must be given full faith and credit and that the trial court erred in ordering genetic marker testing. The voluntary acknowledgement of paternity signed by both parents had all ready established the father as the legal father to the child, and therefore there was no need for further proof of paternity to establish parenting rights and responsibilities.

The court noted that it had made similar rulings in Watts v. Watts, which held that a father was precluded from seeking blood tests to disprove his paternity fifteen years after the children's births. In Watts, the court found that to allow the father to escape liability for support by blood tests would ignore his lengthy, voluntary acknowledgement of paternity. Here, the court noted that although the mother was seeking to disprove paternity, the result should not be any different than that in Watts.

Today's opinion should serve as a warning to anyone who voluntarily signs an acknowledgement of paternity. If there are any doubts or questions regarding paternity, seek legal counsel prior to signing the acknowledgment  because it may preclude the ability to reopen the issue of paternity in the future.