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.

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.

New Hampshire court's decision regarding home schooling grabs national attention

A recent decision in the Laconia Family Division regarding a parent's disagreement over homeschooling their daughter has been grabbing national attention., including a headline on Fox News. Unfortunately, the news articles, bloggers, and advocates for the mother paint this as a constitutional issue, one of the state interfering with parents' constitutional right to raise their child as they see fit. However, this case is not a constitutional matter or a ruling on the merits or value of homeschooling. It is an example of what happens when two parents cannot agree on what is best for their child.

The facts of the case are as follows: Martin Kurowski and Brenda Voydatch divorced in 1999. The parties were awarded joint-decision making responsibility for their daughter, Amanda, meaning that each parent would have equal say in major life decisions such as education and medical care. Although the parents disagreed about whether Amanda should be home schooled, Amanda was home schooled by her mother. The parties continued to disagree on the issue, and because they could not agree, it went to the court. A Guardian ad Litem was appointed to investigate and make recommendations to the Court. After completing her investigation, the Guardian ad Litem recommended that Amanda's best interests were served by her attendance at public school. After a evidentiary hearing, in which both parties testified and submitted evidence, the court agreed with the Guardian ad Litem, and ordered that Amanda be enrolled in public school. The court, in the lengthy decision, states:

The Court is extremely reluctant to impose on parents a decision about a child's education, which commonly emerges after sincere and thorough discussion between parents who are both committed to the child's growth and development. In the absence of effective communication between the parents whose case reflects a history of opposing opinions on a variety of issues, the Court is guided by the premises that education is by its nature an exploration and examination of new things, and by the premise that a child requires academic, social, cultural, and physical interaction with a variety of experiences, people, concepts and surroundings in order to grow to an adult who can make intelligent decisions about how to achieve a productive and satisfying life. 

The parties do not debate the relative academic merits of home schooling and public school: it is clear that the home schooling Ms. Voydatch has provided has more than kept up with the academic requirements of the Meredith public school system. Instead, the debate centers on whether enrollment in public school will provide Amanda with an increased opportunity for group learning, group interaction, social problem solving, and exposure to a variety of points of view. Considering the testimony of both parties and the Guardian ad Litem, and by the standard of a preponderance of the evidence, the Court concludes that it would be in Amanda's best interests to attend public school.

"Parents have the fundamental rights to raise their children to the dictates of their conscience," stated the mother's attorney, John Simmons. And this is true, to a certain extent. As recently discussed on this blog, the United States Supreme Court has ruled 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.” The key word here is parents. The state may not intrude on two fit parents who jointly decide what is best for their child. That is not the case here.

Here, two fit parents did not agree on what was best for their child. Attorney Simmons argues that the court has taken away Voydatch's right, as the girl's primary-custody parent, to make decisions regarding her future. Attorney Simmons argument falls short however, as being the parent assigned primary residential responsibility has no bearing on whether that parent has the right to make unilateral decisions about the child. New Hampshire, as with most states, breaks "custody' into two categories: 1) residential and 2) decision-making. A parent could have the majority of the parenting time, called residential responsibility, but still be required to share decision-making responsibility. In this case,  Martin Kurowski and Brenda Voydatch had joint-decision making responsibility. They could not agree on whether Amanda should be home schooled, and in the absence of agreement, the court decided the issue. The father's attorney, Elizabeth Donovan, has it right when she explains: "When two parents with joint decision-making responsibility disagree and they cannot come to any common ground, we submit it to the court. The court takes all the testimony and the court renders a decision. Mrs. Voydatch didn't like the decision."

Parents should keep cases like this in mind when they are litigating issues regarding their children. Parents have two choices. Either the parents decide what is best for their children together as a family, or a judge, who the parents will meet just a few times in their life, will make the decisions for the parents and their children.