Pa. court vacates judge’s ruling to terminate rights

Ling to appoint attorney to represent child’s legal interests

A parental termination case in which a Bedford County judge ruled against the child’s natural father has been vacated by the Pennsylvania Superior Court because the wishes of his son concerning future contact with him were not clear.

The Superior Court, in an opinion released late last week, instructed trial Judge Thomas S. Ling, to appoint an attorney who will represent that child’s legal interests.

For two years, the appeals court has been emphasizing that county court judges must appoint attorneys to represent children involved in termination cases, and it has vacated decisions by judges in all area counties where the wishes of the child concerning termination were not clear.

The decision to remand the case was made by a panel headed by Superior Court Judge Carolyn H. Nichols, and included Judges Jack A. Panella and Gene Strassburger.

The Bedford case involved a child whose mother and father were not married.

The couple co-parented the child while living apart.

However, when the mother met and married another man, the mother wanted the boy’s natural father to surrender his parental rights so her husband could adopt the child.

The mother and husband filed a petition asking the county judge to terminate the parental rights of the natural father.

The child had become close to his paternal grandmother, and his mother indicated she would not object to the grandmother continuing to see the child.

The court appointed a guardian ad litem, or an attorney to represent the child’s best interests.

That attorney recommended the rights of the natural father be terminated.

During lower court hearings, the mother and father sparred about how much attention the natural father has paid to the child, who is now 6 years old.

However, the Superior Court panel pointed out that the guardian ad litem — the attorney appointed to represent the child’s best interests — was unable to express the child’s point of view.

The attorney recommended termination of the father’s parental rights “because his actions did not constitute performance of parental duties,” but, the attorney also “criticized the mother and paternal grandmother for their selfish behavior.”

“Accordingly, we are constrained to vacate the other and remand for further proceedings,” the Superior Court opinion stated.

The appeals court ordered the Bedford judge to appoint legal counsel for the child.

The newly appointed attorney is to determine if termination “is consistent with the child’s legal interests.”

If it is, the judge may then re-enter his termination order.

If it is not, a new hearing is to be held to give the child’s attorney an opportunity to argue on behalf of the child.

If the termination order is once again confirmed, the father’s appeal will be heard by the Superior Court.

COMMENTS