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Did mother lose legal custody because she was poor?

An interesting case is making its way through the appellate courts of one northeastern state, and the outcome could change the way that custody matters are handled in Maryland and across the nation. The case centers on whether a parent has the right to pro bono legal counsel in the event that he or she cannot afford an attorney. While the mother in this case may have won the most recent battle, she still has quite a way to go before she can regain legal custody and be reunited with her daughter.

The matter began when the mother placed her child into short-term foster care at an adoption agency. That agency then encouraged a foster family to take the mother to court to terminate her parental rights. They did so, and were successful in both terminating her rights and adopting her daughter against the mother's will. Because she could not hire an attorney, the mother represented herself in those hearings.

In appeals, an attorney who took on the case was able to successfully argue that the mother should have been given legal counsel, even if she could not afford to hire an attorney on her own. The appellate court agreed and has sent the case back for a new hearing. The court also ruled that parents should have the right to free legal counsel if they cannot hire their own attorney. That issue is now under appeal at the New Jersey Supreme Court, and could eventually end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

For now, the mother is preparing for the new custody trial, and she may be able to visit with her daughter in the interim period before the matter goes back to court. However, the new trial will focus on the best interests of the child, who has now been living with her adoptive family for two years and has bonded with them. It is possible that the child's mother could lose her daughter yet again, even if she has an attorney to assist her this time around. The legal custody case has sparked debate in Maryland and across the nation, and the outcome could change the way that child custody works for disadvantaged parents.  

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

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