Saturday, August 12, 2017

Things You Can Do In Half An Hour

In re: D.H. and S.C., Juveniles

Run a 5k. Bake a couple batches of chocolate chip cookies. Drive from Montpelier to Stowe. Watch a rerun of The Golden Girls on some random cable channel (we’ve all done it).

What could have happened in this case, but did not – which prompted a reversal – was to wait half an hour for a Mom to show up for court. SCOV says the fact the trial court did not grant a 30-minute continuance in a termination of parental rights hearing was reversible error.

For readers who don’t go to juvenile court, let me tell you how it goes. It is long. It takes forever. The cases never really go away. And there are far, far too many of them. Some parents really get it together and work hard and try to have their families together. Some parents find that the procedure is a punishment, and fade away as the case progresses.

Not this Mom. This is a case which, over the course of its lifetime had seventeen hearings. Mom showed up. Mom participated in the hearings. Mom worked on some things in her case plan and spent time with her kids. Alas, the State filed a termination of parental rights petition, which got set for a hearing over the course of several days.

For reasons that seem to boil down to miscommunication, Mom didn’t appear for the first day. Her lawyer was appropriately worried, and tried to get in touch. Initially, contact wasn’t made, but after some testimony was taken, the lawyer asked for a break to go call Mom on the phone. She didn’t reach her. But a little while later, when the parties went back on the record, Mom called back. Mom said she was just up the road in Townshend (this case was tried in Brattleboro), and if given half an hour, she could get there.

Her lawyer conveyed this to the judge, who noted that the court-generated hearing notices from that court duly warn everyone that failure to appear could result in a default. Less than an hour in to the hearing, the judge said the hearing was concluded.

Mother filed a motion to reopen the evidence. The State objected, making an argument that the fact Mom couldn’t get her act together to show up on the right day is indicative of her inability to function as a parent. 

SCOV says no dice, and says the trial court erred in not permitting the half hour break. First of all, this was supposed to be a three-day hearing. Delaying for 30 minutes when the hearing was supposed to take something like 18 hours is a proverbial drop in the bucket.

And really, this isn’t a speeding ticket where, if you don’t show up, you pay a fine. This is the loss of a very significant constitutional right – the right to raise one’s children. Some parents choose not to show up. That’s their choice. But a lot of parents take this really seriously and they want to fight to keep their families together. Apparently this Mom is such a Mom. She showed up fifteen of seventeen times. Even the children’s attorney remarked on the record that it was unlike Mom not to be there, and was reluctant to go forward without Mom present.

SCOV notes that in a TPR proceeding, all parties are afforded a fair hearing due to the constitutional and other legal rights at stake. By not allowing a brief continuance so Mom could get there, Mom was not afforded that right. The case got reversed so Mom can now have her hearing.

*I’m not leaving out the dads here. It’s just that the appeal has everything to do with Mom.

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