TRENTON - New Jersey's highest court will consider the case of an indigent mother who did not have an attorney when a judge terminated her parental rights and placed her 2-year-old daughter with a "financially advantaged" foster family.
Even as the state Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear the case involving the Essex County woman, the justices voted to suspend her visitation rights. They also ordered a trial judge to examine the potential psychological impact on the girl from having a visit with her biological mother after nearly two years apart, the Bergen Record reported.
The woman, identified only by the initials L.A., had turned to the Children's Home Society of New Jersey for short-term foster care for her special needs daughter. The private, Trenton-based adoption agency encouraged a foster family to file a lawsuit against the mother after a year of irregular visits to terminate her parental rights. The agency also filed court papers accusing the mother of abandoning the child and saying she was unfit to be a parent.
Attorney Alex Miller, who now represents the mother, told the newspaper that her client was poor but not unfit.
"She is devastated. This is her daughter," said Miller of the Morristown firm Donahue, Hagan, Klein & Weisberg. "This woman thought she was doing the right thing by getting help; she thought she was getting help for herself and her child. There was nothing in the record about drugs or alcohol. She was just poor. That was it."
A family law judge terminated L.A.'s parental rights but did not find her to be negligent or abusive. The judge also did not find her to be a drug user, an alcoholic, or mentally unfit to care for her daughter. Additionally, the state's child welfare agency did not receive any complaints about her or seek to take custody of her child.
The high court now faces tough questions including whether parents can be too poor to care for their children, whether they have a constitutional right to an attorney when custody is being questioned, and whether the indigent mother can visit her daughter if she doesn't have custody.
The Children's Home Society declined to comment Monday, citing privacy concerns.