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.

GAL Investigation: What to Expect

The court has appointed a Guardian ad Litem, now what? While each GAL has their individual approach to an investigation, in general, this You Tube video reviews what you can expect during the investigation. 

 

 

 

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.

The temporary hearing: A critical phase of your case

Continuing the series of You Tube videos, this edition discusses a very important hearing in your case: the temporary hearing. Watch to find out why, and what you need to do to be prepared and help achieve a good result.

Here are the forms you need for a divorce temporary hearing with children:

Thanks to Jeremy Collins at Ellipsis Entertainment, you were great to work with on this series!

Mission Impossible: Family Division Admin Order 2011-03

Blog posts have been sparse lately, and here's why: Administrative Order Number 2011-03. I've posted several times about the impending demise of the GAL fund, and it is finally coming to fruition. Judge Kelly's administrative order, issued on April 19, 2011, requires GALs in  all GAL fund  marital cases (this excludes abuse/neglect, TPR, guardianship and CHINs) to complete investigations, file final reports, final billing and withdrawals by June 1, 2011.

And let me tell you, that is a ridiculous amount of work to complete in just over a month. It feels like finals week in college or law school, only worse. Instead of finishing up five term papers, I have thirteen reports. It is extremely frustrating to be thrust involuntarily into such a situation because the court system cannot be properly funded by the legislature. 

In the end though, it is the children of indigent New Hampshire Families who will suffer the consequences. They will no longer have a voice in the courtroom, and judges will have to sift through pro se he said she said in trying to determine a child's best interest. And that's a shame for New Hampshire.

How to work with a Guardian ad Litem

A Guardian ad Litem investigation is often a stressful and intrusive process. However, it is important to remain cooperative and informative during the case. Here are some tips on how you should conduct yourself during the process.

· Return the GAL Stipulation and Questionnaire Promptly: When the GAL is first appointed, he will send out to you or your attorney a Guardian ad Litem Stipulation and a questionnaire. The GAL Stipulation is an agreement between you and the GAL that sets forth the issues the GAL will investigate, how the GAL will be paid, and other matters such as access to the children’s mental health records. The questionnaire is a form that the GAL uses to gather information and background on your family and identify issues and areas of disagreement. It is very important to complete and return these items to the GAL as soon as possible.

·Set up your initial meeting with the GAL per the GAL’s instructions: When the GAL receives the appointment, she will send you a letter with instructions. Some GALs will ask that you return the stipulation and questionnaire first, and then call to set up an appointment. Others will set up an appointment right away. Read the letter from the GAL and follow instructions for setting up your first appointment. If you do not hear from the GAL after a few weeks, call the GAL to check in and see what your next steps should be.

· Provide complete contact information for references: The GAL will ask you to provide him with references to speak to regarding you and your family. These may be friends and family, or professionals such as teachers who are familiar with either you, your coparent or the children. Provide the GAL with complete contact information for these references, including an address, telephone number and email if appropriate.  

· Provide the GAL with copies of court documents, orders, and pleadings: If you do not have an attorney to manage your case for you, when the GAL is appointed make sure to provide him with copies of the court orders, pleadings or other relevant documents. It is enormously important, as the GAL only receives the GAL appointment and possibly the court order issued with that appointment. Having you provide the pleadings and court orders that necessitated the appointment of the GAL, as well as the orders for the current parenting schedule, will give the GAL important background on your case.

· Cooperate with the GAL investigation: The GAL may ask to schedule a home visit with the children, or that you bring the children to her office. The GAL may also ask for authorizations to speak to medical providers or other professionals that require a release. Respond to the GAL’s requests promptly, and provide her with information that she requests.

·  Be relevant and informative: There are probably a lot of reasons your relationship with the other parent broke down. While the GAL will want a brief overview, unless the issues have significant relevance to the children, try not to spend a lot of time on non-child issues. For example, the breakdown of your marriage may have been caused by an affair your spouse carried on. However, unless your spouse is introducing the children to their new significant other or making concerning choices about priorities between the children and the new relationship, that is an issue best left to the court and your therapist.  

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.

Grandparents rights in New Hampshire

Most people have heard of visitation in the context of a divorce or parenting matter for a parent. However, many New Hampshire residents are unaware that New Hampshire grandparents have certain rights to visit with their grandchildren, sometimes even over the objection of the parents. Although parents have constitutional rights and responsibilities regarding how they raise their own children, including where they live, what school they go to, and who they allow to see their children, grandparents are not without their own set of rights pursuant to RSA 461-A:13.

When a conflict arises where a parent or parents of a child decide that their parents are no longer allowed to see their grandchildren, grandparents may petition for a court order provided they meet the requirements of the statute. In order to petition for these rights, there must be an absence of a nuclear family, whether by divorce, death, termination of parental rights or other reason. In other words, if a mother and father who are together decide that the grandparent may not see their grandchild, the grandparent will not have standing to seek the visitation under the statute.    

If an absence of the nuclear family exists, the Court will examine the factors enumerated in the statute to determine whether the visitation should be granted. The factors include:

  • whether visitation with the grandparent would be in the best interest of the child,
  • whether it would interfere with any parent-child relationship, or with that parent’s authority over the child,
  • the nature of the relationship between the grandparent and the child, including the frequency of contact between them, whether they have resided together in the past, and whether there would be an emotional blow to the child by visitation or a lack thereof, and
  • the impact of the relationship between the parents and grandparents on the child, including whether any friction resulting from visitation would have a negative impact on the child.

In addition to examining the above factors, the court will often also appoint a Guardian Ad Litem and listen to her recommendations regarding the proposed grandparent visitation carefully.  If the child is emotionally mature, the court may consider the child’s opinion about the matter as well.   

While New Hampshire grandparents may seek visitation under New Hampshire law, not all states protect the grandparent-grandchild relationship. Additionally, the United States Supreme Court, in Troxel v. Granville, overturned a Washington statute allowing grandparents the right to petition the courts for visitation of children over parental objections. The court stated that parents have a constitutional right to rear their children as they see fit. The court also affirmed that there is “a presumption that fit parents act in the best interests of their children.”

In spite of the Troxel ruling, New Hampshire courts have continued to grant grandparents rights because the statute contains safeguards for a parents rights over their children. Even if grandparents are in some way infringing on parental rights, what is most important is the best interest of the children. Sometimes, those interests are best served by maintaining a healthy grandparent-grandchild relationship, even over the objection of the parents. 

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Daniel McLaughlin contributed to this post.

What is the difference between a CASA and a GAL?

I had a conversation today in which the person stated that most Guardian ad Litem's are volunteers, and that it is very unusual to have a GAL who is paid for his services. I thought this topic was worth a blog post to clear up this misconception that seems to derive from the common mix up between a CASA and a GAL.

As discussed previously on this blog, a GAL is a professional appointed by the court to perform an independent investigation and to make recommendations to the court regarding the best interests of a child. A GAL may be appointed in all types of family law cases, from divorces to guardianships, and is paid for her services. GALs are not volunteers, although most GALs work for drastically reduced rates and work far more hours on a case than are billed.

On the other hand, a Court Appointed Special Advocate or CASA is a trained volunteer who serves as an advocate for children in abuse or neglect cases. An abuse or neglect case is a type of case brought to the court by the Division of Children, Youth and Families under the Child Protection Act to protect the health, safety and welfare of a child. Although a CASA's role is very similar to that of a GAL, a CASA only works on abuse or neglect cases or derivative termination of parental rights.