December 2, 2014
IN THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF A.W.S. and K.R.S., Minor Children,
A.W., Respondent and Appellant J.N.S., Petitioner and Respondent
SYNOPSIS OF THE CASE
The Montana Supreme Court held in this case that the natural mother of two minor children had a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney when the children's stepmother sought to terminate the mother's parental rights and adopt them.
The parents of the two children were divorced in 2007 and the father remarried a year later. The natural mother had regular visitation for some time, but had irregular, supervised visits following her arrest in 2009. The stepmother petitioned to adopt the children in 2013, and included a request to terminate the mother's rights as a parent. The District Court held a hearing approximately five weeks after the mother received a copy of the petition. The mother was present at the hearing, but not represented by an attorney, and stated that she could not afford one. The mother did not present any evidence, but told the court that she did not want her parental rights to be terminated. The court granted the petition after concluding that the mother had abandoned her children, that she had not supported her children, and that it was in the children's best interests to terminate her rights and to award adoption to the stepmother.
On appeal, the mother was represented by pro bono counsel, who argued that the process violated her fundamental constitutional rights. The Supreme Court agreed, concluding that Montana's guarantee of equal protection of the laws required that she have the right to an attorney. The Court relied on state laws mandating that an attorney be appointed to represent indigent parents when a petition is filed by the government to terminate their parental rights in child abuse and neglect cases. Although the government does not file the petition in a private adoption matter, both situations allow a state court to terminate a parent's fundamental constitutional liberty interest in raising her children on the basis that the parent is unfit. The Supreme Court concluded that parents in either case stand to lose the same fundamental right and therefore are entitled to the same legal protections. The Court reversed the termination of the mother's rights and returned the case to the District Court for appointment of counsel to represent the mother at a new hearing.