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.  

 

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.

Proving your New Hampshire Petition to Terminate Parental Rights

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has often reiterated that parental rights are “natural, essential, and inherent." Such fundamental liberty interests are not easily swept aside. It is therefore imperative to understand the law and procedures for a termination of parental rights. Check out the latest You Tube video about proving your petition for termination of parental rights.

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What to Bring to a Pretrial Hearing

Before your final trial, the court will conduct a pretrial hearing. Learn here what will happen at the hearing and what needs to be prepared and filed at the hearing. 

Termination of Parental Rights or Surrender of Parental Rights: What's the Difference?

I have received many questions about the similarities and differences between a surrender of parental rights and a termination of parental rights. While the end result is often the same when the parental rights and responsibilities of a parent are permanently severed, there many differences to be aware of. 

Similarities

• Both are proceedings that can end in the permanent severing of all parental rights and responsibilities of a parent.

• Parents who are surrendering or may have their parental rights terminated are entitled to an attorney, and if they cannot afford one the court will appoint an attorney to represent them.

• Both proceedings are confidential.

Differences

• In a surrender of parental rights, all the parties agree to terminate the rights of a parent; a termination of parental rights can be either contested or uncontested. A TPR petition does not always result in a termination of one or both parents parental rights. 

• A parent in a surrender is entitled to counseling at the expense of the petitioning party about the parent’s decision to place the child up for adoption.

• The court is required to appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the best interests of the child in a termination proceeding; a surrender petition does not require the appointment of a guardian ad litem.

• A surrender of parental rights requires that there be a pending adoption, where a termination of parental rights does not. An adoption does not always follow a termination of parental rights case.  

• A termination proceeding requires that the court make a finding, beyond a reasonable doubt, that grounds exist to terminate the parental rights of a parent and that it is in the best interests of the child. A surrender does not require such findings, only the agreement of the parties that the surrender take place.

• TPR cases are heard in the Circuit Court- Family Division, and surrender cases are either in the Circuit Court – Family Division or the Circuit Court – Probate Division depending on the specific facts of the case.

Unbundled Legal Services

Unbundled legal services, also known as limited scope representation, allow you to hire a lawyer to do certain parts of your case, instead of the traditional soup to nuts representation. Some clients choose unbundled services because they cannot afford full representation, and some advice is better than no advice. Other clients feel capable of handling certain parts of the case, but need assistance with other portions.

Unbundled services can be customized to fit your needs, and can include

  • Representation at a specific hearing, such as a temporary hearing
  • Draft proposed orders or pleadings
  • Attending mediation
  • Assisting with discovery preparations
  • Consulting during your case to provide assistance and advice  

Payment arrangements for unbundled services can be tailored to the specific service. For example, paying a small retainer for ongoing advice, or paying for an hour at the end of a meeting to prepare documents.

Lawyers providing unbundled services will ask the client to sign a consent form that clearly spells out what services are, and are not, going to be provided, in addition to a fee agreement. 

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.  

The Facts about Petitions to Terminate Parental Rights

Petitions to terminate parental rights involve fundamental parental rights and responsibilities. Because the statutory grounds to terminate must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and the judge must also find that it is in the child's best interests, it is important to understand the legalities and make sure that your case is well-presented. For more information, call Crusco Law Office, PLLC at 603-627-3668.

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.

Guardian ad Litem fund nears extinction

The Guardian ad Litem fund took a step closer to extinction when the House Finance Committee voted last night to ok HB1 and HB2 and send it to the House for a full vote. The House budget cuts $742 million in spending from the current two-year budget. Among those cuts is the Guardian ad Litem fund, through which GALs are paid on family cases where parents cannot afford to pay upfront for GAL services and so they pay through the fund.

HB2 makes the following changes regarding the GAL Fund:

65. Guardian ad Litem Fees. Amend RSA 461-A:16, IV to read as follows:

IV. The fees for services for the guardian ad litem and others utilized by the guardian and approved by the court shall be a charge against the parties in a proportional amount as the court may determine. [ Where the parties are indigent, compensation for guardians ad litem and others utilized by the guardian and approved by the court shall be based upon the applicable fee schedule established by the supreme court for indigent defense counsel. ]

66. Liability for Expenses. RSA 461-A:17 is repealed and reenacted to read as follows:

Amendment to HB 2-FN-A-LOCAL

461-A:17 Guardians ad Litem and Mediators; Liability for Expenses. The 1 judicial council shall have no responsibility for the payment of the costs of a mediator or guardian ad litem for any party under this chapter.

67. Reference Deleted. Amend RSA 21-I:7-b to read as follows:

21-I:7-b Unit of Cost Containment. There is established within the office of the commissioner of administrative services a unit of cost containment. The unit of cost containment shall be responsible for all functions and duties authorized under RSA 604-A, regarding payment, recoupment and monitoring of indigent defense funds. [It shall also be responsible for all functions authorized under RSA 461-A:18 relative to recouping guardian ad litem funds.] The commissioner is authorized to employ personnel as necessary to accomplish the duties and functions of the unit of cost containment.

69. Repayment of Mediator and Guardian Ad Litem Fees. Amend RSA 461-A:18, I to read as follows:

I. In any case where a mediator has been appointed pursuant to RSA 461-A:7 or a guardian ad litem has been appointed pursuant to RSA 461-A:16 and the responsible party’s proportional share of the expense is ordered to be paid by the judicial council from the special fund established pursuant to RSA [461-A:17] through the unit of cost containment, office of administrative services, the fees and expenses paid on the party’s behalf as the court may order consistent with the party’s ability to pay, such ability to be determined by the unit of cost containment.

73. Child Protection Act; Guardians ad Litem. Amend RSA 169-C:10, I to read as follows:

I. In cases brought pursuant to this chapter involving a neglected or abused child, the court shall appoint a [guardian ad litem or] Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) or other approved program guardian ad litem for the child. If a CASA or other approved program guardian ad litem is unavailable for appointment, the court may then appoint an attorney or other guardian ad litem as the guardian ad litem for the child. The court shall not appoint an attorney for any guardian ad litem appointed for the child [, but may appoint an attorney or any other qualified individual as the guardian ad litem for the child]. The CASA or other approved program guardian ad litem shall have the same authority and access to information as any other guardian ad litem. For purposes of this paragraph, “unavailable for appointment” means that there is no CASA or other approved program guardian ad litem available for appointment by the court following a finding of reasonable cause at the preliminary hearing held under RSA 169-C:15 so that the child’s interests may effectively be represented in preparation for and at an adjudicatory hearing.

 How will the elimination of the GAL fund affect the judicial branch and families?

• When the court has safety concerns about a child and cannot appoint a GAL using the fund, the court will turn to DCYF to investigate the concerns. This will increase the work required of DCYF and expend state resources.

• Trials and hearings will take longer and require more courts resources. Currently, GALs speak to witnesses, review records and report the information to the court in a clear, concise manner. Without a GAL, litigants will bring into court teachers, therapists, family and friends to give testimony. Litigants will submit volumes of emails, medical records, school transcripts and more for the court to sift through. This will increase the time required of the court to hear the case.

• Fewer cases will settle, necessitating more hearings and trials. Currently, once a GAL issues a report or recommendation, litigants are often able to enter into settlement discussions using the opinion of the GAL as a case evaluation. Without that process, litigants will settle less often and in turn take up court resources with more motions and hearings.

• Because trials will take longer and occur more often, the court system will suffer longer delays. Currently, the wait for a two day divorce trial in the Brentwood Family Division is over one year from the time that it is scheduled. Without the GAL fund, parties will have to wait even longer for a resolution to their case.

• Indigent litigants will be denied access to justice that litigants who can afford to pay up front for a GAL will have. The court system has never discriminated on the basis of income, and it should not start now.

There are alternatives to the elimination of the GAL fund. One alternative is the state doing a better job of collecting the funds that parents owe for GAL services. My understanding is that the fund requires about 1.8 million to run each year. The judicial branch collects $240,000 in filing fees for the GAL fund. In addition, the office of cost containment collects about $350,000 from parents who use services. This leaves a shortfall of roughly 1.2 million. This gap could be closed more effectively recouping the funds from litigants.
 

If the elimination of the GAL fund concerns you, contact your House representative and ask that the GAL fund be preserved or at the very least the effects of defunding it should be studied in committee before acting.

Concord, we have a problem!

Crazy things are going on in Concord that needs your attention. Currently, there are several bills that would dramatically change the practice of family law in New Hampshire, and not for the better. A group of disgruntled litigants are attempting for the third time to remove a distinguished marital master from the bench. Finally, Governor Lynch’s proposed budget eliminates the guardian ad litem fund and appointed counsel for parents in abuse and neglect cases, a proposal that would be disastrous for the overburdened court system and children they protect.  

Pending Legislation

 

The New Hampshire family court system is not perfect and I am sure that there is room for improvement. Unlike other areas of the law, which are black and white, the grey nature of family law requires the vesting of discretion within the court to allow a result based on the unique facts of each case. However, the legislature seems intent on radical change that removes discretion from the courts, and mandates certain outcomes.

  • HB 587 proposes that no fault divorces be granted only to couples who do not have children under the age of 18. Instead, divorcing couples with minor children must prove one of the fault grounds, such as adultery, extreme cruelty, endangerment of health or reason, habitual drunkenness, or abandonment. Though the aim may be to keep families together by requiring a person seeking a divorce to prove fault, the end result would be increased litigation, expense and animosity in cases involving children. Such a result is in no one’s best interests.
  • HB 538 would require the family division to report a vast amount of information to the state registrar about parental rights and responsibilities matters. The bill proposes that the court must report statistics on every temporary or permanent order on parental rights and responsibilities, including tallying whether mothers or fathers were awarded decision making and residential responsibility. The bill also requires the Supreme Court to implement standards of practice and oversight of GALs. This bill creates an extreme amount of work for an all ready underfunded court system, and duplicates oversight and discipline provided by the GAL Board. In today’s tough times, it’s the least important thing on the plate.
  •  HB 563 would discard the current child support calculations and set child support to either the net income multiplied by the applicable percentage or the foster care reimbursement rates, whichever is less. Where to start with what is wrong with this bill? It drastically reduces all child support rates by basing child support on net income instead of gross income and tying child support to the foster care reimbursement rates. For example, the most that any obligor would ever have to pay for a child age 0 to 5 would be $474. That amount does not even cover daycare for one child, let alone diapers, formula, clothing, food and shelter.

If you have comments or concerns about these bills, contact your legislature to make your voice heard. You can find the contact information for your representative or senator on the state website.  

 

Impeachment of Master Cross

 

For three years, family court litigants David Johnson and Michael Puia have waged a public war against Marital Master Philip Cross through the legislature. Despite the legislature's vote against the Bill of Address seeking to remove Master Cross from the bench, Rep Itse has sponsored a house resolution seeking to direct the the house judiciary committee "to investigate whether grounds exist to impeach marital master Phillip Cross and/or any justice of the New Hampshire superior court."

 

Such a maneuver is a dangerous, slippery slope for the legislature. In its 235 year history, the State of New Hampshire has impeached two judges. Impeachment is reserved for the most serious of offenses, defined by the Constitution as "bribery, corruption, malpractice or maladministration."  The nature of the allegations enumerated in the resolution cannot on its face be characterized as one of these four acts.

 

Instead, the allegations evidence unhappy litigants who do not understand the court system. Therein is the slippery slope. If every litigant who received an adverse decision were able to bring their grievance to the legislature and initiate impeachment proceedings, the State of New Hampshire would have no judges left. Master Cross alone heard over 6,000 cases last year. Add in the 90 plus judges and masters across the state, and the legislature would have their hands full.

 

The hearing before the Resolution Committee on this matter will occur at the Legislative Office Building, 30 North State Street, Concord, on Tuesday, the 22nd, @ 3:30pm.

 

State Budget

 

Governor Lynch has proposed a budget that eliminates both the GAL Fund and assigned counsel for parents accused of abuse and neglect. This proposed change would go into effect on July 1, 2011.

 

Currently, the GAL Fund works as follows: The court assigns a Guardian ad Litem to a case to represent the best interests of a child. These cases include divorce, parenting petitions, termination of parental rights, guardianships and other family matters. In the event that one or both of the litigants qualifies under certain income guidelines, the court orders that the qualifying parent’s portion of the payment owed to the GAL will go through the GAL fund. The parties are then required to contact the Office of Cost Containment and set up a payment schedule. Services rendered by GALs through the GAL fund are not free, and the parents must pay back the funds.

In abuse and neglect cases, the Division of Children, Youth and Families files a petition against a parent alleging that a child is abused or neglected. A possible consequence of an abuse or neglect petition can be the filing of a petition to terminate a parent’s parental rights. Parental rights are constitutional rights, similar to a defendant charged in a criminal case. Additionally, assigned counsel is subject to reimbursement from the parents. In other words, a parent does not get a free attorney, and may have to pay back some or all of the funds.

 

The results of the Governor’s proposed cuts would be disastrous. Eliminating the GAL fund would deny access to the court system to low income families. Judges would be unable to make informed decisions regarding custody of children without the services of a guardian ad litem, and children would be put in harm’s way. In abuse and neglect cases, a flood of litigants who are unfamiliar with the court system and the law will wash through and muddy an all ready overburdened court. Then, eventually, when a parent who has not been afforded counsel has their constitutional right to parent terminated will win an appeal on those grounds and children who need permanent homes will continue to live in limbo.

 

I get that the state is looking to eliminate entitlement programs, but these programs are not free and are about access to justice and the protection of constitutional rights. Instead of eliminating the programs, the state should implement a better system to insure that more parents are paying into the system as they have been court ordered to do.

 

Please write to Governor Lynch, and tell him how his proposed budget affects your family.

UCCJEA Now Effective

The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) went into effect on December 1, 2010 in New Hampshire. Following the lead of 46 other states, the UCCJEA replaces the old UCCJA, which is still the law in Massachusetts and Vermont. The act affects almost every case that involves parental rights and responsibilities, including divorce, parenting petitions, child abuse and neglect, guardianships of minors, termination of parental rights, and domestic violence petitions where minor children are involved.   

 

Important points about the new law:

  • Requires that once the “home state” of the child has been determined, and child custody orders have been issued, that state has “exclusive continuing jurisdiction” for so long as the child or either parent reside there.
  • Eliminates the confusing “best interests” standard included in the UCCJA, which some courts interpreted as a mandate to consider best interests factors over and above jurisdictional matters.
  • Adds enforcement tools including a role for public authorities, such as prosecutors, to enforce custody orders and the ability for the court to issue a emergency relief such as a warrant to take possession of a child should the court be concerned that the parent with control over the child may flee.

The new law brings about a slew of new and revised forms. For petitioners, forms such as a Petition for Divorce, Petition for Guardianship over Minor, or a Domestic Violence Petition have been modified to include required information. For respondents, the court has developed a separate form titled a UCCJEA Affidavit to complete in response to an initial petition.

 

Navigating the requirements of the UCCJEA can be overwhelming for those involved in cases of parenting rights and responsibilities. It is important to retain competent legal counsel to assist you. Contact Crusco Law Office, PLLC for more information.

Rights of the non-accused, non-custodial parent in abuse and neglect cases

If you are the non-accused, non-custodial parent of a child who is the subject of an abuse or neglect filing by the Division of Children, Youth and Families, the outcome of the case could have a substantial affect on your parental rights. Although non-accused, if a finding of true is entered, the parents of the child have an obligation to correct the conditions that led to the finding of neglect. If the conditions have not been corrected within twelve months of the finding, your parental rights could be terminated, even if you are the non-accused parent. Accordingly, it is very important to be well versed on your rights and, if possible, hire an attorney to represent you.  

Request for custody

As the parent who does not live with the child and is not alleged to have abused or neglected your child, you have the right to petition the court for a “Bill F” hearing. The hearing is titled after the New Hampshire Supreme Court case, In Re Bill F, in which the court held that parents who have not been charged with abuse or neglect must be afforded, upon demand, a hearing regarding their request for custody. At the Bill F hearing, a parent must show that he or she has the ability to provide care for the child. If shown, the court shall award custody unless the State demonstrates, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he or she has abused or neglected the child or is otherwise unfit to perform his or her parental duties.

 

Right to an attorney

A parent who has been accused of abuse or neglect has the right to have an attorney represent him or her throughout the case, and if they cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to represent them. Not so for the non-accused, non-household parent. Although you will have the right to hire an attorney at your own expense, RSA 169-C:10, specifically prohibits the court from appointing an attorney to represent you. The New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed in the case of In Re Father, holding that the statute prohibiting the appointment of an attorney to represent a non-accused, non-custodial parent does not violate the Due Process Clause of the State Constitution.

Termination of parental rights in New Hampshire

“Surely there can be few loses more grievous than the abrogation of parental rights.” Those words are as true today as they were when Supreme Court Justice Blackmun first wrote them in Lassiter v. Department of Social Services in 1981. Unfortunately, there are times, however grievous, when it is necessary to terminate parental rights against a parents wishes. There are also times when rigorous defense against a petition to terminate parental rights is warranted.

The United States Supreme Court has long recognized the right and the heavy responsibility of the states to terminate the parent-child relationship when there is cause to do so. In New Hampshire, RSA 170-C provides for involuntary termination of parental rights, and the probate courts, and now also the family divisions, have exclusive jurisdiction over such termination of parental rights matters. If the court orders a termination of parental rights, the effect is to sever all legal rights, privileges and duties between the parent and the child. The two become legal strangers in the eyes of the law, with neither parent or child owing any obligations to the other at any point in the future.

 

A termination petition may be filed, pursuant to RSA 170-C:4 by:

 

a.       Either parent;

b.      The child’s guardian or legal custodian;

c.       The child’s foster parent if the child has resided with that foster parent continuously for 24 months; or

d.      An “authorized agency,” which in termination of parental rights petitions would be the Division for Children, Youth and Families, or DCYF.

 

Additionally, the statute sets forth limited conditions on which such a petition may be brought. RSA 170-C:5 lists six circumstances under which a petition for termination of parental rights will be granted:

 

a.       The parents have abandoned the child

b.      The parents have substantially and continuously neglected to provide the child with the care necessary for mental, emotional, or physical health when they are financially able to do so

c.       The parent(s) have failed to correct conditions that lead to a violation of the Child Protection Act, within twelve months of such a finding

d.      The parent is, and will continue to be, mentally incapable, either by deficiency or illness, of caring for the child

e.       The parent knowingly or willingly caused, or allowed to be caused, severe sexual, physical, emotional or mental abuse of the child

f.       The parent has been convicted of any of the following crimes:

a.       The murder of another child of the parent, a sibling or step-sibling of the child, or the child's other parent;

b.      The manslaughter of another child of the parent, a sibling or step-sibling of the child, the child's other parent;

c.       Attempted murder of the child, step-child, sibling or other parent; or

d.      A felony assault which resulted in injury to the child, a sibling or step-sibling of the child, or the child's other parent.

 

Courts will consider the best interest of the child in rendering a decision, sometimes appointing a Guardian Ad Litem to represent that interest. However, even if the court determines that the child’s best interests are served by terminating a parent’s rights, that finding alone is not sufficient to order termination. A court must make an explicit finding under the statute that one or more of the above criteria has been satisfied. The United States Supreme Court states: in Santosky v. Kramer:

The fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody, and management of their child is protected by the 14th Amendment, and does not evaporate simply because they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody of their child to the State.

The Santosky court also held that, except for clear cases of abuse, the government should not separate children from their families or countermand parental authority.

 

Because termination affects a fundamental constitutional right for parents to raise their children as they see fit, New Hampshire courts have increased the burden on the petitioner to prove that TPR is appropriate. In State v. Robert H., the New Hampshire Supreme Court made it clear that for the termination of parental rights, the standard to be imposed is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that 170-C:5 has been satisfied. It is fitting that the petitioner must meet this highest burden as “the rights of parents (over the family) are held to be natural, essential and inherent rights, within the meaning of the New Hampshire Constitution,” the New Hampshire Supreme Court states. “The permanent termination of the rights of parents over their children is even more final than involuntary commitment or delinquency proceedings” both of which require that heightened standard; no other standard would be appropriate.  

 

The above discussion merely scratches the surface of these intricate and complicated issues. Each case has its own set of unique facts and circumstances. The termination of parental rights is extremely serious, and for that reason, as well as those cited above, it is very important that you retain competent counsel if you are involved in a TPR action, whether as the parent or the petitioner. Contact Crusco Law Office, PLLC for further information. 

 

Crusco Law Office, PLLC law clerk, Daniel McLaughlin, contributed to this post.