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Should poor parents lose their child custody rights?

An unusual and disturbing case is making its way through the legal system and will be heard before one state's Supreme Court. At issue in the case is whether a parent should lose his or her parental rights over financial struggles. The matter may end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the outcome could impact child custody cases in Florida and across the nation.

The case centers on a mother who did not have the financial means to provide for the care of her special needs child. After a few years of struggle, including staying with family members and in homeless shelters, the mother made the difficult decision to place her daughter in short-term foster care at an adoption agency while she worked to get back on her feet. After a period of time, however, the agency urged a foster family to seek the termination of the mother's parental rights.

When the matter went before the court, the mother was unable to pay for an attorney to represent her interests. Because the custody challenge was from an individual and not the state, no legal counsel was provided. The mother lost the case, and her daughter was adopted by the foster family. An attorney then picked up the case pro bono and took the matter through appeals.

The mother won her appeal, and the appellate court ruled that a new custody trial will take place. That court also ruled that the mother is entitled to legal counsel, even if she cannot afford that service. This is one of the issues that will go before the state's Supreme Court this spring and which could go all the way to the nation's highest court.

If a ruling is made that indigent parents have the right to free legal counsel, a great many families could be affected. Currently, parents who face a child custody challenge from another individual have no presumed right to legal representation. If they are unable to hire an attorney, they are forced to handle the matter themselves, even if they have no knowledge of the law or courtroom procedures. The outcome in such cases is often in favor of the party who is able to afford an attorney, which many in Florida feel is unjust.

Source: northjersey.com, "N.J. Supreme Court to hear child custody case involving indigent mother", Salvador Rizzo, Dec. 21, 2015

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