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Termination of Parental Rights & Guardianship: How & Why

I had opportunity to volunteer last night at a free legal clinic.  The beauty of volunteering is that not only do I get to help people, but I also find out where my knowledge of my claimed “specialty” in the law is limited, and then I have something to research to bolster that knowledge.  It’s a win-win.

Last night I consulted with a woman on guardianship of a child.  Her circumstances are such that she’s in a temporary guardianship situation, but because the child’s mother is not making any efforts to become a fit parent, and there is a constant underlying threat that mom is just going to swoop in and try and take the child home with her to “be the mom”, the woman expressed an interest in a more permanent arrangement.  We discussed a few different options, including filing a petition to terminate mom’s rights and then filing for adoption of the child, and a permanent guardianship.

bad parenting

Hopefully this is NOT this kid’s parent…

I am familiar with the statute regarding termination of parental rights, and I’ve read a good chunk of caselaw recently about termination of parental rights, but I could not for the life of me find the statute last night when I was talking to this woman (it’s a little tricky to pull/find/read on a 4 inch iPhone screen, btw.)  SO. Today I found it, on a desktop computer.  Statute that governs parental rights termination is located at Utah Code Title 78A Chapter 6 Part 5.  Any interested party, including a foster parent, can file a petition to terminate rights of a parent (UCA 78A-6-504).  Grounds for termination are located at UCA 78A-6-507.  You’ll note that only ONE of those grounds have to be shown/proven to terminate rights, which include abandonment of the child.  A parent can be found to have abandoned their child if they’ve only had “token” contact or communication with a child.  So if mom hasn’t seen a kid in 2 years, and then suddenly shows up and takes him to McD’s, or sends a card with $5 in it, that doesn’t constitute enough contact or support to prevent a court from finding that the parent has abandoned the child.

The statute spells out what needs to be in the petition to terminate, and also states what the process is (serving the parent, timeframes for having a hearing, etc.) at UCA 78A-6-504 and -505.  While I’m not finding any forms for terminating someone else’s parental rights (NOT voluntary relinquishment of rights–those forms and information are here), the statute is specific enough that one should be able to put together their own petition and get service of process done without them (or with some limited consulting with an attorney.)

Like I said, I’ve read a raft of caselaw recently regarding the process of terminating someone’s parental rights (here are just a few examples:  In re K.W., In re A.J., and In re B.A.).  A parent is entitled to a court appointed/state paid for attorney in termination proceedings if they can’t afford to hire a lawyer, but the parent is not required to have a lawyer–meaning, if the parent is offered but refuses counsel, they can’t come back later and say they were deprived of due process.  And the courts really do only require the showing of ONE of the statute’s grounds for termination.  ONE.  Though quite frankly, all the cases I’ve read where the appellate court affirmed the juvenile court’s decision to terminate rights have had a bucketload of grounds that more than justified termination.  All that said, the court MUST put into findings of fact actual facts that support the court’s decision to terminate rights….and they can’t be terminated just because a parent doesn’t strictly comply with a DCFS family plan.  (For an example/more explanation, see the court case In Re E.A., from May of 2018.)

The whole point behind a parent having rights to their child removed is for the welfare of the child.  This is not something to take lightly, but if you’re looking at a situation where a parent is NOT getting their act together, is consistently behaving in ways that make them an unfit parent (see the statute for what those ways legally are), and this behavior is threatening the ongoing stability of their child, terminating rights may be the best thing to do for the sake of that child.  Terminating parental rights opens up the child for adoption (which you’d file at the same time as the petition to terminate rights, just to cover your bases–but that’s another blog post.)  Adoption generally equals stability, and the chance to grow up better adjusted and more normally.  Best interests of the child are key here.

Family hands

Because family isn’t just about blood…it’s about people who care about each other.

Terminating parental rights is not the only way to get a child in a more secure situation, for the record.  I also discussed with the woman last night the possibility of getting a permanent guardianship in place.  This is more of a middle ground solution–it’s not legally Permanent–it CAN be undone at some point.  When a parent’s rights are terminated, it IS permanent.  Even if they voluntarily relinquish their rights.  There are no “I changed my mind” options.  Guardianship leaves open a way for a parent to get their situation under control, get stable, and eventually, possibly, get their kid back.  The Utah Courts website has a lot of info on getting a guardianship put in place, including forms.  Have a look-see.

To the woman I spoke with last night:  Good on you for caring enough to even look into this.  Legal actions are never convenient, and rarely pleasant, but you CAN do what needs to be done to make sure the child you’re caring for is in a stable place.  I wish you the best.

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Protective Orders: What They’re NOT for

While I’m not in private practice anymore, I do take the occasional one-off type thing: those cases that will have a one time court appearance or are strictly consulting, or are basic estate planning–that sort of thing.  Today I had a hearing defending a client in a motion for a permanent protective order.

I truly believe in protective orders.  When they are needed, one should ABSOLUTELY get one.  That said, I ALSO feel strongly that protective orders should not be abused.  If one is simply trying to control another person, or force a custody order, or simply to “get back” at another person for some perceived slight, getting a protective order is absolutely inappropriate.  Personally, I think people who get ex parte protective orders for the wrong reasons should have to pay the other person’s costs and attorneys fees when the motion and temporary PO are dismissed.  And maybe have some sort of sanction thrown at them by the court, like being ordered to do community service.

My client this morning who I was defending was in a situation where the protective order was being used as a tool to try and control and manipulate him.  The Petitioner in this case, his baby mama, was not in need of protection by the court.  They’re not even Utah residents–they’ve both been living in California up until she took off and came back to Utah, taking their tiny baby daughter with her.  He filed for custody in California a week or so after she left, when it became apparent that she couldn’t be trusted to allow him contact with his child.  And 3 weeks later, after dodging–but finally being served– with the California court papers, Baby Mama filed for a protective order.

Long story short, I won this one.  The protective order motion was denied, and the ex parte/temporary order was dismissed.  The reason I won is because my client was excellent at documenting stuff–he saved all the texts, emails, and Facebook messages the two had exchanged.  And he was totally upfront with his less-than-perfect behaviors.  He had also not been abusive to her–in fact, SHE had assaulted HIM; SHE had been the one threatening HIM. And in the end, we were able to prove that Baby Mama did not meet the requirements to get a protective order against my client.

Gifts from Client 4-19-18

Gifts from my client :).  He was very grateful, and very nice. The best kind of client to have.

I like to win.  A lot.  And when that win can knock down what I see as abuse of  protective orders, and protect a person from losing constitutional rights in a quasi-criminal action, all the better.  I hate people who cry wolf.  They truly degrade the value of the protective order, which hurts everyone out there who honest to God needs one.

The Advisory Guidelines: Especially at the Holidays

I’ve written a number of blog articles about parent time and the holidays, but in the interest of making sure you are in the right frame of mind, I thought I’d do another one this year.  The holidays can be a really lovely time with your kids, if you and your ex can be grown ups about it.  I’ve mentioned this a few times before as well.  You have a parent time order in place; follow it.  You and your ex have family holiday parties going on that may or may not coincide with your particular parent time schedule; work with each other so your kids can be part of both of their parents’ family fun.

In Utah this aspirational “working together” thing has actually been made part of the statutes.  It’s called the Advisory Guidelines, and they’re found at UCA 30-3-33.  Some specific portions that are important to follow during the holiday season:Treat them as good as you are

(3) Special consideration shall be given by each parent to make the child available to attend family functions including funerals, weddings, family reunions, religious holidays, important ceremonies, and other significant events in the life of the child or in the life of either parent which may inadvertently conflict with the parent-time schedule.

(17) Each parent shall be entitled to an equal division of major religious holidays celebrated by the parents, and the parent who celebrates a religious holiday that the other parent does not celebrate shall have the right to be together with the child on the religious holiday. (emphasis added)

Note the “shall”s in those parts of the statute.  That means that this working together and being nice for the sake of the kids is mandatory.  And you should think it’s mandatory anyway, without having to have the law tell you how to be a good parent. Because honestly, that’s all the advisory guidelines are–the law telling you to be a good parent, not jerk the other parent around, do what you can to make your child’s life and experiences as full and peaceful and normal as possible, even though his/her parents are divorced.  Be a good person.  Communicate about the kids.  Think about how what you’re doing and how you’re interacting with your ex will affect your kids.  These are not hard things.  And if you’re the only parent doing it, STILL DO IT.  Somebody’s gotta be the grown up.  Take it upon yourself to Be the Grown Up.

Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me….

 

Fear

Fear makes the wolf bigger than he isAs a noun, fear is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.”  As a verb, to “be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or threatening.”  Fear can be a huge motivator to either do, or NOT do, a particular thing.  Sometimes fear is based in reality; sometimes, just in the perception of reality.  Fear can be crippling, can prevent one from taking necessary, reasonable action, or can motivate one to take actions that are unreasonable, dangerous, or out of proportion to the circumstances.

So what does that have to do with the law?

Family law actions are emotional things.  While the divvying up of assets, assignment of debts, allocation of custody and parent time, and awards of child support and alimony are black and white things, underlying the entire process is a mess of emotions, largely unpleasant ones.  Anger, pain, rage, desperation, panic, despair, sadness, frustration, helplessness, hopelessness….Swirling in with that horrible mix is Fear.

Fear is a huge part of any major life change….fear of the unknown–what happens with my budget when I’m limited to x amount of dollars a month?  What happens to my retirement goals when I have to pay out x dollars a month?  Why should I have to pay money to this person who is hurting me?  When will I get to see my kids?  What if my ex makes my kids hate me?  How will I pay all the expenses I need to for my kids?  What if I can’t pay the rent on this child support/alimony amount?  How am I supposed to get a job and take care of my kids at the same time? Who’s gonna hire me???  Is anyone ever gonna want to be with me again????

I would suggest that much of the reason people behave irrationally, do dumb things, say dumb things, try to avoid legal action, or any of the thousands of different ways people end up hurting themselves in family cases is out of fear:  “If I avoid the process server, they can’t serve me, and this will all go away.”  “He said there’s a warrant out for my arrest if I try and show up to court….I can’t get arrested!”

Mark Twain CourageWhile legal proceedings can be scary, the best way to deal with them is through Knowledge.  Be proactive–don’t wait until the last minute to seek legal advice.  If you’re scared about a threat made by the Other, ASK someone who knows or can find out about whether there’s any truth to the threat.  If you married a bully, be ready to deal with a bully.  Is it scary?  Hell YES it is.  But avoiding it, hiding, pretending it’s not happening, remaining willfully ignorant will do more to hurt you in the long AND short run than squaring your shoulders and addressing the situation.

Case in point:

I got divorced in 2005.  At the time, I’d been a stay at home mom, had 4 kids, the oldest of which were 8 year old twins, and had no money to my own name other than what my husband brought in.  My marriage had come apart, and my mental health was deteriorating.  I couldn’t stay married and live.  And No, I’m not being dramatic when I say that.  I was scared to death.

So how did I handle it?

I rolled over and died, in a manner of speaking.  My husband hired a lawyer, who drafted an agreement taking everything away from me except for some really minimal bits of Stuff.  I didn’t fight to get custody of the kids I’d been primary caretaker of for their entire lives.  I didn’t even attempt to stay in my house, or get alimony, or ask for half of the rest of our marital, not-insignificant assets.  I signed my husband’s agreement.  That became the terms of my divorce, and gave him custody of my kids.

I flat out gave up.  Out of paralyzing, crippling Fear.  Everything my husband said about how miserable he’d make me if I tried to get even statutory minimums under the law for ANYTHING, I believed.  All the little demeaning, demoralizing comments he threw out at me, I believed.  I was terrified–terrified of a legal fight, terrified of my kids getting hurt any worse than they already were, terrified of losing my mind before it was all said and done…Terrified.  Scared.  Panicked.

And so, out of blind, crippling, numbing, paralyzing fear, I gave up.  Everything–my kids, my home, any portion of 10 years of marriage…all of it.  Without a fight.

Ask me how much I regret that.  And when you do, bring tissues, because I’m going to cry my eyes out on you, even though it’s been nearly 13 years since all that happened.fear-is-the-mindkiller

DON’T YOU BE LIKE ME.  You be BRAVE.  Find your support people.  Face your fears, even if you have to face them quietly, by seeking out help online, or at a victim’s crisis center.  Get real information.  Do a little research.  DON’T GO DOWN WITHOUT A FIGHT!  For the love of all that is good and holy, I am begging you, do not let fear take your life from you.  You can do it.  I swear, it’s hard as hell, but you CAN.  And you Must.

A final Scene from the story of fear in my life:  I am at my Aunt Nancy’s house, curled up on the floor in her bathroom, sobbing out of fear and the misery that came from letting my fear cripple me when it counted most.  She is sitting next to me, on the floor, knees pulled up to her chest, her arm around my shoulders.  She is saying, “I wish I could poor courage into your spine so you can stand.”

I say to you–Imagine me pouring courage into your spine.  Stand up. You may be afraid, but don’t let it control you.  You are not alone.

Be Brave.

…and Time Waits for No Man…

Tomorrow is the first day of school for my kids.  I have a freshman and a senior in high school, starting Tomorrow.  The first day of school is always a little bittersweet.  It’s exciting to see my kids getting older, growing, all those great things that parents so enjoy, that we are lucky to be able to witness.  But it’s also just another marker of time, and my children growing up, and not being Children anymore.

First day of School 2010

First day of school 2010…they’re not little anymore…

I have been there for the first day of school every year since my divorce was final, 12 1/2 years ago.  Whether I lived 2 minutes away or 7 hours away.  There were a lot of years that I’d hug my kids, see them off on the bus, then drive away and cry for hours.  I don’t have to drive away and cry anymore–tomorrow, for the first time EVER, school is starting during MY parent time week.  Not that it really matters much anymore…I’ve lived within 3 blocks of my ex-husband for going on 3 years now, so even if he has the kids for the week, I’m just a minute away.

The hard part for me is the Looking Back that we tend to do at the beginning of a new school year.  And I’m not over all the loss from the past years enough yet to do that without becoming an emotional mess.  You know what they say–Time and mercy heal all wounds.  Still waiting on time and mercy….

Bitching on Social Media: KNOCK IT OFF

This is gonna be a little, short post, but it’s gotta be said.  STOP airing all your grievances on social media!  Keep your snarky little comments OFF Twitter!  Keep your personal, thinly-veiled jabs at the other party off Facebook!  You’re. Not. Helping.  Being pissed off about the ex boyfriend or ex husband or ex wife or ex girlfriend in a public forum is ugly, dumb, and completely immature.  ESPECIALLY if you have kids who have access to your vitriol about their dad/mom.

If your child support isn’t being paid, I’m sorry.  Stuff happens in people’s lives, and sometimes they CAN’T pay you AND keep the lights on.  And even if they’re just being hateful and refusing to pay?  Public shaming doesn’t make them any less hateful.  For real.  You’re not solving your problem.  You’re simply ramping up the conflict, creating drama, and adding more tension to BOTH of your lives.

If you and your ex are engaged in some sort of court case, DON’T GO SPEWING ALL OVER YOUR FB PAGE.  You look like a vicious b*tch–and that term applies to men who do it as well.  And then you provide evidence to the other person that they can simply blow up 16″x 24″ on a poster in court to show how horrible you are.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve advised a client to SHUT UP on Facebook or Twitter.  You’re only hurting yourself with that kind of behavior.  You think your page is totally private?  Maybe it is, and maybe someone is seeing stuff and passing it on to the ex.  You will sink yourself, and you’ll have no one but yourself to blame. Because in the words of my Uncle Terry, and the Great John Wayne,

229378-Life-Is-Hard.-Its-Harder-If-You-re-Stupid

 

 

Parent Time: This is not a “pay to play” thing.

I’ve had this question come up a few times in the past few weeks, from a few different places.  A friend from way back asked if it was legal to withhold parent time for non-payment of child support, because he knows a guy (who lost his job, and got behind) who is experiencing that right now with his ex.  And I advised a couple that their daughter cannot keep her kids away from dad because he’s not paying child support (even though that dude is actually refusing to work specifically so he doesn’t have to pay–but that’s a topic for another day.)

So why CAN’T a custodial parent keep the non-custodial from having parent time if that person isn’t paying his/her child support?

Let’s start with the focus of the issue:  The kids need to have a relationship with BOTH parents.  Parent time is not something that is doled out based upon one’s ability to pay, or even their willingness to pay child support.  Studies have shown that children in divorce do better emotionally and socially when they have both parents actively involved in their lives.  A parent time order is designed to do just that–keep both parents involved with the kids.  Keeping a child from a loving parent, just because that parent isn’t paying the other one, disrupts the child’s relationship with that parent, and really could constitute emotional child abuse.

Mrs Doubtfire

One should never have to cross-dress just to have access to their kids.

“But it’s not fair!”  I hear this a lot (I hate the “F”–fair–word).  Why should the non-custodial parent get the benefit of having a relationship with the child when he/she isn’t even financially supporting the kid? I’ll tell you why–this is NOT about you, and it’s not about the money.  It’s about the kids.  Kids. Need. Both. Parents.  Even if one parent is a deadbeat (and for the record–I do not believe all people who don’t pay child support are deadbeats).  As (retired) Commissioner Garner of the First & Second Judicial Districts here in Utah was wont to say, children are half of each parent.  Denying a child from being with a parent is denying half of the child.   In the words of Natalie Hillard, the littlest child in Mrs. Doubtfire, “we’re his goddamn kids too!”

The divorce code specifically states that the other party not complying with the parenting plan provisions or child support order does not mean you can not comply, too.  (See U.C.A. 30-3-10.9(9)).  Parent time is part of the parenting plan provisions.

So yeah, it’s illegal.  But it’s also criminal.  If you keep a kid from a non-paying parent during the time he/she is supposed to have visitation, just because they’re not paying child support, you are committing a crime.  It’s called custodial interference, and the statute is found at U.C.A. 76-5-303.  Nothing in the statute makes an exception for non-payment of child support.  Unless you honest to God believe your child is in danger of abuse at the hands of the other parent, you cannot keep a parent with a visitation order away from his or her kid(s) during the time they have been awarded by the court.

Custodial Interference - 2016

…though it IS located in the criminal code under kidnapping…

A first offense is a Class B Misdemeanor; doing this twice in a 2 year period raises that to a Class A Misdemeanor.  Removing the child from the state when it’s supposed to be the other parent’s time is a third degree felony.  Class B misdemeanors may be punishable by a fine of up to $1000 and prison not to exceed 6 months; Class A–fine up to $2500 and not more than one year in prison; and third degree felonies may be punishable by a fine up to $5000 and up to 5 years in prison (see U.C.A. 76-3-301; 76-3-203; and 76-3-204).  The legislature was serious about parent time.  You should be, too.

So what can you do if this happens to you?  First off–you should be communicating clearly and in writing with a parent who is withholding your kids from you.  Email and request confirmation of the parent time schedule for the week, or the month, or the summer, or whatever.  Be civil.  Keep any responses.  Text the other parent about parent time.  Be civil.  Keep all responses.

If you have a statement from the other parent saying that they will NOT give you the kids for your parent time, call the police.  Request a civil standby, and go to the ex’s place to pick up your kids at the appointed hour.  When the other parent and the kids aren’t there, or if the other parent refuses to allow you to take the kids, make a police report.  Get copies of the police report. Request law enforcement refer the case to the local prosecutor.

File a motion to enforce your parent time order with the court.  This is called an Order to Show Cause.  It does not cost you anything to file, and you do not have to have a lawyer for this.  You can find forms on the Utah courts website to do this.

The caveats on enforcement:  Police and prosecutors won’t always want to charge a parent with custodial interference.  But if it were me, I would make a pest of myself until law enforcement took me seriously.  We’re talking about your relationship with your kids.  They won’t always be kids; you miss out on their growing up, and you can’t get that back.  If they don’t know who you are because the custodial parent is horrible, and you didn’t try harder, that’s partly on you.  Be the adult.  Be brave.

They’re your goddamn kids too.

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