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.