Dec. 21, 2018
- Whether the evidence supported the trial court’s findings that father had abandoned his child, had not paid sufficient support and the termination of his parental rights was in the child’s best interests.
One month after H.J. was born, the father was incarcerated. Upon his release, the parents of H.J. resided together for a brief time when a domestic violence order was issued against the father as it pertained to the mother. In April 2009, the mother filed a parenting petition and the father did not appear at any of the hearings. In December 2009, the mother was granted sole legal and physical custody of H.J. The father was permitted to visit with H.J. once a week at his expense, however the mother had the discretion to refuse to allow these visits. The Court authorized the father to petition the court for further orders when the father believed he could be a “positive and consistent” influence in H.J.’s life. The father did not petition the court. Rather, the father visited H.J. on two occasions at a visitation center in February and March, 2010. He failed to appear for a scheduled visit and was incarcerated again throughout various times between then and October 2017. The father had paid a total of $458.70 in child support for H.J. since July 2009 and other than the two aforementioned visits, he had sent cards in 2010, a gift card and two letters in 2016 and a birthday card in 2017. In October 2017, the mother filed a petition seeking termination of the father’s parental rights on the grounds of abandonment and non-support. At the hearing, the mother testified that her husband had been an ‘active and constant’ part of her son’s life since 2019 and her husband wanted to adopt H.J. The father testified his intent was never to abandon his son, rather he had been incarcerated for the last four out of eight years. A guardian ad litem conducted an investigation and submitted a final report in support of terminating father’s parental rights; also recognizing that said termination would be in H.J.’s best interests.
After hearing all of the evidence, the trial court found that the father had abandoned his son and did not provide adequate support. The court therefore terminated the father’s parental rights.
In analyzing the trial court’s decision, the Supreme Court recognized that a petitioning party must prove statutory grounds for termination — in this case abandonment and non-support — beyond a reasonable doubt. Once grounds of termination are established, the analysis then turns to the child’s best interests. First, as it pertains to abandonment, the parties agreed that there were periods of time where the father left H.J. in the care and custody of the mother and without communication for six months at a time. The father argued, however, that he did not intend to abandon his son and that the major barrier was caused by the mother. On a review of the record, the Court upheld the trial court’s finding that the father had abandoned H.J. through his own actions and that the father’s contact with H.J. was minimal. Because the trial court found one ground triggering termination pursuant to RSA 170-C:5, the Court did not need to review the second ground addressing non-support.
Next, the Court reviewed whether or not the trial court erred when determining that the termination of the father’s rights was in the best interests of H.J. The Court rejected the father’s argument that the trial court gave insufficient weight to the evidence that the mother did not facilitate visits between the father and H.J. and in its analysis distinguished the case from In re: Sophia-Marie H. 165 N.H. 332 (2013). The Court ultimately upheld the trial court’s decision to terminate the father’s parenting rights.
Petitioner, the mother of H.J., self-represented party, by brief. Gary Paradis of the Law Office of Gary Paradis, PLLC of Manchester, by brief for father.