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Court: Parental rights rules create challenges

Judges admit ‘growing pains’ in law that requires children to have attorneys

The Pennsylvania Superior Court admitted this week that there are some “growing pains” at the county court level with new rules that dictate that, in cases of termination of parental rights, children must be assigned attorneys who represent their interests.

The state appeals court in the past few months, in accordance with its recent opinions, as well as those from the Supreme Court, has been vacating parental termination orders and sending the cases back to the county judges who issued the rulings for clarification as to whether the children were properly represented by attorneys.

Cases have been remanded locally to judges in Blair, Clearfield and Cambria counties.

On Monday, the Superior Court sent another case back to Cambria County for clarification, and in the process, reasoned that “eventually, the legal counsel growing pains will ease as local jurisdictions enforce (the law) as it was intended. Until then, we are constrained to remand ambiguous cases like this.”

The case in point this week involved three children ages 8, 3 and 1.

The mother of the children was appealing parental termination orders issued on April 24 by Cambria Judge Patrick T. Kiniry.

The orders mean that mother loses her rights as a parent and that the children are placed with adoptive parents.

Judge Deborah A. Kunselman wrote an opinion that was joined in by Judge Mary Jane Bowes and concurred with by Judge Paula Francisco Ott.

In that opinion, it was stated that Ebensburg attorney Christopher G. Gvozdich was appointed to represent the children, and he participated in the termination hearing but presented no argument on behalf of the children.

In his post-hearing memorandum, Gvozdich, according to the opinion, “thoroughly argued for termination.”

His only statement concerning the children was that in talking to the 8-year-old, the youngster “painted an overall picture of a child who is satisfied with whom and where he resides (the adoptive home).”

Still, the Superior Court concluded, “We have no basis to conclude that (the child) was provided with counsel who represented his legal interests and took direction from (him) to the extent possible.”

The court pointed out the oldest youngster had lived 6 of his 8 years with his mother, and the mother testified he loves her and that he is bonded to her.

She speculated that he “would not believe any negative thing said about her.”

The Superior Court was concerned that while the attorney reported the boy was “satisfied” with his adoptive home, it stated, “There is no indication (the youngster) would prefer his current situation over termination, which necessarily includes a very real possibility that he would never see his mother again or at least not until he reaches the age of majority.”

The panel agreed with Gvozdich’s assessment that the younger children, ages 3 and 1, were too young “to articulate a preferred outcome.”

Yet all three termination orders had to be vacated because the preferred outcome of the 8-year-old could impact the cases of the young­er children, according to the Superior Court ruling.

It stated that even if the oldest child’s preferred outcome is inconsistent with termination, that still might not be enough to alter Kiniry’s termination orders.

The judge has the role of determining what is in the best interests of the children.

The three children came under control of the Cambria County Children and Youth Service because of medical neglect.

The youngest child, it was discovered, had no immunizations, and the mother was missing her pediatric appointments.

Also, the mother had a drug problem that include opiate, cocaine and marijuana abuse, and there were allegations of homelessness and a possible outstanding arrest warrant.

Because the mother only minimally complied with goals for reunification, the agency requested termination of the mother’s pa­rental rights.

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