Happy National Reunification Day, Luzerne County

Luzerne County, Pennsylvania

Mary Tullis was devastated when a Luzerne County judge terminated her rights to her son and daughter last year.

Tullis believed that her case was under review by the Superior Court. She learned instead that it had been dismissed only after being contacted by a reporter from Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Times Leader last Monday.

“I believed in the appeal process, that we would get a fair hearing as long as it wasn’t heard by a Luzerne County judge,” Tullis said, breaking down in tears. “Now you’re telling me my appeal was dismissed? I was certain we were going to see that justice was served.”

Instead, justice was denied. And so it goes in countless thousands of termination of parental rights cases across the nation. In Justice Denied: The Crisis in Legal Representation of Birth Parents in Child Protective Proceedings, the New York City Public Advocate’s office found “considerable parent dissatisfaction with the quality of their legal representation.” The report is as timely today as when it was first issued.

Of those surveyed, “56% reported that their attorneys did not return phone calls, 57% reported that their attorneys did not inform them of their legal rights and options, and only 30% reported that their attorneys adequately represented their views in the courtroom. In their comments, many parents implied that they viewed their court-appointed attorneys as part of an uncaring bureaucracy that was biased against them.”

Returning once again to Pennsylvania, the Times Leader notes that: “The failure to advance the appeals in termination cases is the latest allegation to tarnish the reputation of the Public Defender’s Office, which has been harshly criticized for its role in the juvenile justice scandal that resulted in the convictions of thousands of juveniles being overturned last year.”

“A commission formed to investigate shortcomings within the county’s juvenile delinquency court faulted the office and other attorneys for failing to halt violations of juveniles’ constitutional rights that they witnessed in then-Judge Mark Ciavarella’s courtroom,” the paper explains.

The Times Leader reported last Tuesday on the results of an investigation showing the Public Defender’s Office had failed to file required paperwork in 15 appeals filed with the Superior Court by parents who had challenged termination rulings, resulting in the dismissal of their cases.

The newspaper’s review showed that in nine of 15 cases at issue, appeals were filed, but later were dismissed “because the attorneys failed to file the required legal briefs that detail the errors the trial judge allegedly committed.” Another six cases were “quashed,” meaning they were dismissed for failure to comply with some other aspect of appellate court procedure.

“The lack of action by the attorneys means the parents were deprived of their right to have the Superior Court review the lower court ruling to determine if it was properly entered – a result an advocate for parental rights described as ‘appalling,'” the paper explains.

“This is a trampling of the rights of families,” said attorney Martin Guggenheim, president of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “If there is one thing America stands for, it is for the opportunity for every person to be heard in a meaningful manner. … When these lawyers do not pay even minimal attention … it is as close to lawlessness as you can contemplate.”

The lawlessness continues to prevail even as the lives of children and their families hang in the balance.

Happy National Reunification Day.

Related reading: “For parents, justice not served“, “How to direct parent cases being mulled,” and “Regaining children unlikely,” from the Times Leader.