Saturday, February 16, 2008

Indigent Parents In CHINS Cases Now Get Free Attorneys

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently looked at two CHINS (children in need of services) cases, one from Worcester County and the other from Essex County, in both of which a juvenile court judge had denied a mother legal right to court-appointed counsel. The SJC ruling in this consolidated case In the Matter of Hilary has now established that parents in these cases do indeed have a right to be heard, may have an attorney representing them in these proceedings, and further have a right to an appointed attorney if they cannot afford one.

For more information about the case, see the February 11, 2008 article by David Frank in the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, SJC gives parents right to counsel in CHINS cases.

About this expanded access to justice, the Boston Globe, in an editorial from February 14, A Break For Desperate Parents opined: "Providing lawyers for poor parents could cost roughly $1 million to $2 million a year, according to Mike Dsida, a deputy chief counsel for the state's Committee for Public Counsel Services. This is only fair. Parents accused of abusing their children already have the right to a lawyer if they risk losing custody. Parents in CHINS cases should also have that right."

I completely agree with this recent SJC ruling, which expands in a reasonable way access to justice to parents in CHINS cases, and with its analysis and rationale. I similarly agree with the Boston Globe's commentary.

Furthermore, I believe that this case, and its basic rationale, lend great support to my longstanding position that the SJC should also require the appointment of lawyers to indigent individuals in district courts and family courts when and where they are challenging restraining orders, at the very least when these individuals have children in their home and they risk losing custody. See my previous post touching on this issue here.

The specific issue of access to justice for individuals defending against restraining orders has not yet been before the SJC. I hope that important issue will also be before it at some point soon, and the SJC will fairly and appropriately continue to expand access to justice in a sensible way, as it has done in this recent CHINS case, for which it should be applauded.


"The issue of first impression that we decide in these consolidated cases from the Worcester County and Essex County Divisions of the Juvenile Court Department, which are here on a reservation and report, without decision, from a single justice of this court, is whether, after a child is adjudicated a child in need of services (CHINS), a parent is entitled to counsel at the dispositional phase of the proceeding, if custody of the child is at issue. G.L. c. 119, § 39G. Two Juvenile Court judges denied, among other things, the indigent mothers' requests for such court-appointed counsel. Because we conclude that, pursuant to G.L. c. 119, § 29, parents are entitled to counsel at the dispositional phase of a CHINS proceeding if the judge is considering awarding custody to the Department of Social Services (department), and have a concomitant right to intervene in the case, see note 18, infra, we reverse the decision of the Worcester County Juvenile Court judge and remand that case for further action consistent with this opinion.


For the reasons set forth above, we conclude that, pursuant to G.L. c. 119, § 29, after a child is adjudicated a child in need of services, a parent is entitled to counsel at the dispositional phase of the proceeding if custody of the child could be granted to the department. We reverse the decision of the Worcester County Division of the Juvenile Court Department and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.So ordered. "

For information about Massachusetts divorce and family law, see Law Offices of Steven Ballard.

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