A parent who wasn’t given right to testify should not have parental rights terminated, NJ Appellate Division says
The Appellate Division recently reversed a Passaic County trial court’s Judgment of Guardianship that terminated the parental rights of a mother who failed to appear during the guardianship trial, but then appeared on the day of the court’s decision and requested an opportunity to testify. N.J. Div. of Child Protection & Permanency v. K.S., 445 N.J. Super. 384 (App. Div. 2016). In this case, the trial court conducted a termination of parental rights trial in the parent’s absence. Then, ten days later, when the trial court convened to issue a decision, the parent appeared and requested an opportunity to present evidence on her behalf, but the trial court denied the request and terminated the parent’s rights to two of her children.
After reviewing the matter on appeal, the Appellate Court held that “a parent facing the termination of parental rights is entitled to every reasonable opportunity to produce evidence. If the parent seeks to reopen the record to testify after the close of evidence, the trial court is constitutionally obligated to grant the request as long as it does not interfere with the children’s ‘essential and overriding interest in stability and permanency.’” In its analysis, the Appellate Court pointed to the constitutional right of parents to raise and maintain a relationship with their children. The Court further highlighted that in the context of termination of parental rights proceedings, due process requires that parents must be afforded adequate notice and a fair opportunity to be heard.
In addition to the due process considerations, the Court also underscored, “because the termination of parental rights is based upon an individualized evaluation of the factual circumstances, a complete record is constitutionally necessary and a parent must be liberally afforded the right to be heard before executing the severance of the parent-child relationship.” Accordingly, the Appellate Division determined that the trial court violated the mother’s constitutional rights and reversed the termination of her parental rights so that she could testify before the trial court.