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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
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NJ Trampled Indigent Mom’s Trial Rights

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) - A homeless mother should have been given court-appointed counsel in her fight to retain parental rights over her young daughter, a New Jersey appeals court found.

"No evidence was introduced at trial that L.A. abused or neglected her daughter; nor that she was addicted to drugs or alcohol, or suffered from mental illness," Judge Ellen Koblitz wrote for a three-judge panel. "Poverty alone seems to have given rise to L.A.'s concerns regarding the care of her two-year-old special-needs daughter."

L.A., as she is described in court documents, had placed her daughter in temporary foster care with the pledge to find a job and permanent housing.

Over the next year, however, L.A. missed some visits with her child while living with a sister in Pennsylvania.

The Children's Home Society of New Jersey decided that L.A. was unwilling or unable to care for her child. It notified L.A. in March 2013 that the state was creating an adoption plan for the girl, who had been living with a foster family with a girl about the same age as the daughter.

While trying to remove L.A.'s parental rights, the state encouraged the foster family to move for private adoption.

L.A. objected at every opportunity but she was not provided with any legal counsel, nor was she told she could receive court-appointed lawyer, New Jersey's Appellate Division found today.

L.A. lived at a homeless shelter during the two-day trial. The Essex County Family Court terminated her parental rights in 2014 and a private adoption agency took charge of her daughter.

The Appellate Division reversed and remanded today for a new trial, saying that indigent parents are always entitled to counsel in private adoption cases, and that a lawyer should be appointed to the case as soon as termination of parental rights is first sought by state officials.

In L.A.'s case, she should have had a lawyer appointed in March 2013, when the state first advised her she could lose her daughter through adoption, the court found.

"The termination of parental rights by state action is of constitutional magnitude, and parents unquestionably have the right to counsel when the state moves to terminate parental rights," Koblitz wrote.

Prior to the trial, L.A. was living in a homeless shelter, and she had told the court that she was "working on" getting an attorney to represent her.

At no time, the appeals court found, was she told a lawyer would represent her if she count not afford counsel.

During the trial, the adopting family retained a psychologist to conduct bonding evaluations on the child with them and with L.A., as well as psychological tests on L.A. Bonding evaluations are considered controversial in adoption cases in that a young child may be prejudiced to choose her current foster family over her natural family.

The identity of the child's father is unknown. The adoption has since been stayed. L.A. must be given a court-appointed lawyer for the next trial.

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