The New Jersey Supreme Court, citing “the invaluable right to raise a child,” has ordered a new trial for the indigent mother of a six-year-old girl with special needs. The court found that the mother’s due process rights were violated after she left her daughter in foster care in 2012, and then lost her parental rights, and her child. The court also mandated that the mother have free legal counsel to protect her rights.
According to court documents, the girl’s mother, who also has two boys, became concerned in 2012 that she lacked the resources to properly care for her daughter. She did not have her own residence and had spent time with relatives and in a homeless shelter in the months leading up to the placement of the child in foster care. After the placement, the Children’s Home Society of New Jersey, where the mother left the child, recommended that the foster parents seek to adopt the child, citing both abandonment and lack of fitness to parent. A hearing was conducted, where the mother’s parental rights were terminated. The judge at that hearing did not find any evidence of abuse or that the mother was mentally unfit, but nonetheless took away her parental rights.
Writing for the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner noted that the mother did not have legal counsel during the parental rights proceedings, causing the odds to be stacked against her. She apparently attempted to present evidence on her own, cross-examine witnesses, and give her own opening and closing statements. On the other hand, the foster parents brought in eight witnesses, including a child psychologist. The disparity in representation, said the court, “casts doubt on the fairness of the process.”
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