Until last July, when the state charged low-income parents with abuse or neglect of their children, the state provided them with a lawyer.
But to help balance the budget, that funding was eliminated.
New Hampshire is believed to be the only state in the country that’s ever taken such a step.
The people charged with enforcing the new policy are worried that it doesn’t serve parents or their children very well.
When Governor John Lynch and his staff were preparing his budget proposal last year, the governor made a decision.
He recommended the state cut the money to pay lawyers to represent parents in abuse and neglect cases.
The savings...$1.2 million dollars a year.
And with the Legislature in a race to balance the budget, lawmakers quickly accepted that plan along with millions of dollars worth of other cuts proposed by the governor.
That decision by Governor Lynch - made in some meeting at the statehouse in early 2011- is now playing out in court rooms like this.
“So Mr. ____ one of the topics that we are going to go through today is making sure you have an understanding of what the potential consequences of this type of case are to your parental rights and responsibilities.”
We’re in a preliminary hearing with Judge Susan Ashley in the Rochester Family Division Courthouse.
We masked any names to protect the identity of the father and his child.
Speaking to the father, a man we’ll call ‘Donald,’ the judge stressed just what’s at stake.
“Ultimately if the court made a decision that your parental rights should be terminated, it would be at that point, you would no longer have any legal rights, duties, or obligations with regard to ____. Do you understand that’s a potential consequence to this type of a cases?”
After the hearing Donald says he completely gets there’s a chance he could lose his 4-year old forever.
But what he needs to do to prevent that, he not sure at all.
“It’s all happening it pretty quick. And I having a hard time kind of processing everything that’s going on and knowing what’s going to go on.”
This is not a case of abuse...it’s neglect.
The 34-year-old father explains he doesn’t have any place for his child to live right now.
So, she’s headed to foster care.
Donald cuts trees for a living.
He has a thick bush of black beard.
A tattoo stretches across his collarbone, an ink necklace.
“What’s the highest level of education you have...10thgrade...you dropped out...yes. I have dyslexia, I have a hard time reading and writing.”
Donald’s fiancé Megan points to the an ‘Emergency Exit’ sign
Donald can’t read it.
Megan says her fiancé is counting on her to help him through this process....help him go through all the paperwork.
The 21-year-old says she’s out of her league.
“I can read what’s on the paper...but I can’t explain what it means in layman’s terms. Just b/c I can read it, doesn’t mean I get it. B/c half the time, I don’t.”
Judges and lawyers know the 900-some cases they’ll likely see this year will have parents who are unfit to represent themselves.
And they don’t like it...it doesn’t fit their idea of justice.
“It’s like shooting fish in a barrel sometimes. And it’s not fun. It doesn’t make me feel good about doing my job.”
Peter Brunette is an attorney for the state.
His job is to argue against the parents.
“Without a lawyer, there’s no way they can navigate this system to ensure that their rights are being adequately protected. That’s the problem we are all struggling with right now.”
Lawyers and judges are bending over backwards, taking extra time with these cases.
A routine 10 minute hearings 8 months ago, now can take an hour.
It’s because people like Judge Ashley try to explain things simply, and answer question after question.
But Ashley says that may not be enough.
“It concerns me there are too many parents feeling isolated against a group of people who appear to be expert in these types of cases, who parents see as ‘on the other side.’”
Essentially, parents have 12 months to shape up and address the source of the neglect.
Sometimes that’s counseling for substance abuse, or mental illness, or getting out of a violent relationship.
But without a lawyer to navigate the process, Ashley thinks parents are more likely to get overwhelmed and give up.
“Suddenly those 12 months have slipped away. And we find ourselves at a permanency hearing where the parent hasn’t done what they needed to do to correct the conditions of neglect. So I worry that there are parents who may face petitions to terminate their parental rights when they may have had the ability to fix the situation.”
University of Michigan Law Professor Vivek Sankaran worries the state may get exactly what it would normally try to avoid – a generation of kids who grow up without their parents.
Sankaran is a leading expert on child advocacy in the courts.
“It just flies in the face of everything we know about child welfare practice and policy and how to make good decisions. What makes what happens in New Hampshire so striking, is that over the past 30 years the practice of child welfare has become much more sophisticated...and then you get this, where we’ve just reverted back to where we were in the 1960’s or the 1950’s.”
“You do the best you can with budgets. And budgets is about setting priorities.”
That’s Governor Lynch.
Lynch says New Hampshire continues to fund lawyers for parents if the state files a termination of parental rights case.
That’s that step after parents were given the 12 months to correct their problems.
It’s widely believed that by the time the state files a termination of parental rights, it’s too late to reunite parent with child.
But the governor says he stands by his decision.
“A budget is about making tough choices. And that’s what we had to do with the budget we proposed.”
Donald and Megan feel they’re not going to get much sympathy from people like Governor Lynch and lawmakers in Concord.
“I think people just look at people who are losing their kids, people just look at them like they are scumbags....I don’t think people understand it ain’t always due to abuse or anything like that. Sometimes it’s over financial problems why they need help.”
“The people in Concord don’t care...They go home every night to their kids and wife and their husband and live the life that they want. But they have people like us sitting here, not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow. Ever. They don’t have that. I wish they would just live in people’s shoes who don’t have everything and that can’t figure it out as easily as they can.”
Lawyers representing parents are taking this to the state Supreme Court.
Oral arguments on the constitutionality of this budget cut are expected sometime this spring.
By the time the case is settled, the window for Donald to reunite with his 4-year-old could be closed.