A recent New Hampshire Supreme Court case dealt with when a Court can terminate parental rights after the parent is convicted of child abuse. The mother of a very young child was found guilty by a jury of abuse. She was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison with three of those years suspended. Based on that conviction, the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) went to court to terminate her parental rights.
According to New Hampshire statute, if a parent is incarcerated for a felony, and has also been found to have abused or neglected the child, the Court can terminate parental rights. The factors for the Court to consider in such a situation are the nature of the crime and the length of the sentence. If the parent will be away for too long it is wrong to keep the child in a state of limbo and therefore the rights can be terminated. Incarceration in and of itself, however, is not grounds to terminate parental rights. But if the parent is unable to provide for the care of the child due to the incarceration, then the Court can take their rights away.
In this case, the Court found that the nature of the mother’s conviction, and the length of her sentence, were such that her rights should be terminated to provide the child with stability. However, about one month after the Court’s decision, the mother’s conviction was reversed on appeal. There was an error at trial because she was not allowed to introduce certain evidence bolstering her defense that she had not intentionally abused the child but had instead been trying to get the child away from the father, who was holding the child and angry. The case was sent back for a new trial.
Even after the reversal of the conviction, however the judge in the parental case refused to undo the decision to terminate parental rights. The New Hampshire Supreme Court reversed that decision, holding that it is not right to consider somebody “convicted” until the case is affirmed on appeal. Since the conviction in this case was not final, it could not be relied upon to terminate rights. The case is called In Re: S.T. and was decided on November 29th.
This ruling consistent with the general principle of law that a conviction is not final until after all appeals are concluded. For example, if a person dies after they are found guilty but while there case is still on appeal, they are not considered convicted of the crime. You may recall that this is exactly what happened to Ken Lay, the infamous former CEO of Enron.