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State Supreme Court Considers Counsel for Indigent Parents

NHPR Staff

Do indigent parents have a constitutional right to a lawyer when the state charges that parent with abuse or neglect of their child?

That’s the question put to the state’s top court.

Last year, lawmakers passed a historic budget – making cuts to General Fund spending for the first time since World War II.

One of the casualties....the $1.2 million dollars provided to indigent parents for legal representation in child abuse and neglect proceedings.

Over the past several years, 350-400 parents a year are charged, typically for neglect.

Attorney Michael Shklar argued that tiny budget cut – less than half a percent of state spending – legally, is a big problem.

“There is no question in any of this court’s jurisprudence that a parent has a natural and fundamental right to their relationship with their child.”

Here’s the way the system works in New Hampshire, the court often gives the parent about 12 months to straighten up; get sober, deal with mental illness.

If they make the necessary changes, they get the child back.

But Shklar told the court while that may sound simple, parents with little education are entering a world of social workers, judges, attorneys and jargon.

“APLA, AFSA, and using terms like ‘reasonable efforts’ that no ordinary person understands. If I use the example of a parent in this very case, the man is blind. None of the reports are available in Braille. How is somebody like that supposed to defend himself?”

One justice echoed Shklar’s sentiments during oral arguments, saying “the trial court is handicapped” if parents can’t represent themselves.

And if parents can’t represent themselves, can the court effectively get it right, when trying to decide what’s in the best interests of the child?

But Assistant Attorney General Jeanne Herrick responded saying, there’s nothing in the state Constitution that requires making a judges life easy.

Herrick says the court has already taken great steps to make sure parents understand what’s happening.

Plus, she says, the system is designed to help parents.

“The notion that all the resources of the state are against a litigant is contrary to the very purpose of the statute. In fact, the resources of the state are in favor of reuniting that child with those parents. There are social workers who are hired by the state to assist parents to get that child back, reunited with those parents.”

Herrick pointed out that 85 percent of abuse and neglect cases end with parent and child reunited.

Of course, Herrick’s sample includes cases with parents who were represented by lawyers.


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