(CN) - A Nebraska juvenile court may have interfered with a mother's parenting rights by forcing her to "actively pursue either a G.E.D. or a high school diploma" in order to get her kids back, the state's high court ruled.
The Nebraska Supreme Court reinstated the appeal of a Sudanese immigrant identified only as Nyamal M.
A minor ward herself in 2010, Nyamal was living with her mother and raising two daughters, aged 2 and 4, while attending high school, according to the Nebraska Supreme Court's ruling. The girls were removed from the home that July due to neglect, and a juvenile court required Nyamal to stay in high school as part of her rehabilitation plan.
In December 2011, she aged out of the system at 19, and later dropped out of school and got a full-time job. Her daughters were placed in a foster home because of her "inappropriate physical discipline," the ruling states.
At an August 2012 review hearing, the juvenile court required Nyamal to "actively pursue either a G.E.D. [diploma] or a high school diploma" as a condition of her rehabilitation plan to get her kids back.
"I do think it's highly relevant to the ability to provide for these children," the judge had explained.
The court also ordered Nyamal and her daughters' biological father to provide "a legal means of financial support for the minor children," and directed the Department of Health and Human Services to help her obtain the right immigration papers.
Nyamal appealed, claiming the diploma requirement went too far.
The state's Court of Appeals, however, viewed the order as a mere continuation of the earlier requirement that she stay in high school. If she opposed the education requirement, the appellate court reasoned, she should have challenged the earlier order.
But the Nebraska high court disagreed that the 2012 order merely extended the juvenile court's previous plans.
"The juvenile court explicitly stated from the bench that it was adopting the department's recommendations with the change in the rehabilitation plan. And that change was not insignificant," Justice William Connolly wrote. (Emphasis in original.)
Before Nyamal aged out at 19, she wasn't obligated to get a diploma to be reunited with her kids, the court noted.
"[E]ven if she had appealed from the original order, an appellate court would not have considered whether she was required to obtain a high school diploma or its equivalent," Connolly added.
The juvenile court had imposed the additional requirement that she provide a legal means of financial support for her kids, which meant her job didn't count because she wasn't yet authorized to legally work in the United States, the court said.
"The conditions for reunification with a parent's child is a crucial step in proceedings that could possibly lead to the termination of parental rights," Connolly wrote. "We therefore hold that such orders affect a parent's substantial right in a special proceeding and are appealable."
It reversed the appellate court's decision and directed the lower court to consider the merits of Nyamal's appeal.
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