Pa. court: Child has a right to lawyer

Three-judge appeals panel returns case to Cambria County

Pennsylvania Superior Court has ruled that a child in a parental termination case has the right to be represented with “zeal and professionalism” by an attorney.

A three-judge panel concluded Friday that a 5-year-old child in a Cambria County case did not have adequate representation when his mother’s parental rights were terminated by Common Pleas Court Judge Patrick Kiniry in an opinion he issued on Sept. 5.

The appeals court, in an opinion written by Judge Gene Strass­burger, vacated Kiniry’s order and returned the case to Cambria County with instructions that the court appoint a new attorney to represent the child’s legal interests.

The attorney is to consult with the youngster and to notify the judge whether the prior proceedings were consistent with his legal interests or if a new hearing should be held.

The panel of judges, which also included John T. Bender and Jacqueline O. Shogan, was asked in October to overturn the court’s order terminating the mother’s parental rights, but before it would address the issues on appeal, the court on its own raised the question about whether the child had been properly represented.

The opinion related that it is important that a child’s interests are represented during parental termination hearings because, it concluded, children are unable to raise issues on their own behalf.

The child had been in foster care with a relative for three years while the mother attempted to address her mental health and drug and alcohol issues.

Her life, as it was described during the lower court termination hearings, was “a roller coaster ride.”

The mother could not maintain stable housing, and her prognosis was listed as “poor” by Cambria County Children and Youth Services.

A year ago, the mother pleaded guilty to drug offenses.

She received a sentence of three to six years in the State Correctional Institution at Muncy.

The youngster had an attorney during the proceedings, a court-appointed guardian, Suzann Lehmier, who asked questions during the hearing but who had never met or talked to the child.

Her knowledge of the case came through discussions with the foster mother, and according to the Superior Court opinion, the “child’s position at the time of the hearings is not readily discernible from other sources in the record.”

Reports during the hearing indicated: The child periodically asks to call his mother; he periodically asks about his mother; he cries and wants to go home to his mother; he says he wants to live with his foster mother and visit his mother.

“Children have no say in (appointment of counsel) and deserve to have the benefit of effective representation, particularly when a matter as important as (their) future relationship with a biological parent is at stake,” the Strassburger opinion stated.

While the child is not old enough to participate in his own legal representation, the judges stated, “it is not unlikely the child has feelings one way or another about his mother and his permanency.”

At a bare minimum, it was stated, the boy’s attorney should attempt to ascertain the youngster’s position and advocate to effectuate that position.

The court noted the child has been in foster care for almost four years and stated it didn’t want to prolong “the uncertainty of child’s future,” but felt the child’s legal interests must be protected.

The father’s parental rights also were terminated, but he did not contest the ruling of the county court.

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