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.

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.

Appeal in the New Hampshire homeschooling case: Kurowski & Voydatch

Back in September 2009, the so-called New Hampshire homeschooling case (In the Matter of Martin Kurowski and Brenda Voydatch) grabbed national headlines when the court ordered the parties’ child to attend public school instead of continuing with home schooling. Home school supporters decried the decision, arguing that the order trampled the mother’s constitutional rights to raise and educate her child as she saw fit. The problem with that line of thinking is that it fails to acknowledge that the child has two parents, not one. As an equal decision maker, the father has rights too. When the parents could not agree on matters of education and religion, the family court decided.

The case is currently on appeal at the New Hampshire Supreme Court, and headed to oral arguments on January 6, 2011 at 9:00 am. The parties have submitted their briefs, including an Amicus Curiae brief from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).  

The mother, through her attorney John Simmons, filed an appeal and brief with the New Hampshire Supreme Court, asking the court to consider the following questions:

 

  • Whether the trial court erred in modifying a parenting plan, to order a home schooled child to attend public school, by considering the “best interests of the child”, where none of the statutory circumstances permitting modification, as set forth in RSA 461-A:11, were present, and the court made such finding.
  •  Whether the trial court erroneously concluded that it was in the best interests of a home-schooled child to be sent to public school where the court’s decision was based on its own definition of the purpose of education that was unsupported by RSA 461-A:6,I or by any other law.
  •  Whether the trial court’s decision should be reversed because it committed plain error in relying on the opinion testimony of a guardian ad litem who was not qualified as an expert and who’s opinion was not based on a rational perception within the meaning of Rule 701 of the New Hampshire Rules of Evidence.
  • Whether the trial court’s order that a home schooled child attend public school to expose her to diverse points of view was erroneous because it violated the fundamental parental right to control a child’s education guaranteed by the United States Constitution, where the evidence showed that the child was already getting a superior education and the State’s purported goal could be achieved by a less restrictive means.
  •  Whether the trial court’s order that a home schooled child attend public school because she was too rigid in her religious beliefs was erroneous because it interfered with the child’s right to the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
  • Whether the trial court’s order that a home schooled child attend public school should be reversed because it relief on the testimony of a guardian ad litem who was biased against the religion practiced by the child and her mother.

The father, through his attorney Joshua Gordon, submitted a reply brief. HSLDA submitted an amicus curiae brief. Stay tuned for a blog post reviewing the arguments and briefs.