NH Supreme Court requests amicus briefs on topic of right to counsel in abuse and neglect cases

Since July 2011, indigent parents accused of abuse or neglect have had to manage the court system without an attorney. Recent legislative changes removed the statutory requirement contained in RSA 169-C:10, II(a) that counsel be appointed for requiring appointed counsel for indigent parents. However, the question still remains whether the parents have a constitutional right to counsel under the New Hampshire constitution.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court is now faced with that question, and has called for amicus briefs or memorandum on the following question:

Does the Due Process Clause of the New Hampshire Constitution (Part 1, Articles 2 and 15) or the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution require the appointment of counsel for an indigent parent from whom the State seeks to take custody of a minor child based on allegations of neglect or abuse? 

I believe the civil right to counsel for parents accused of abuse or neglect is a fundamental right, as basic as the right to an attorney in criminal matters. My New Hampshire Bar News opinion and blog post provide a more detailed analysis. I am interested to hear your opinion so feel free to leave a comment. 

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.