In a recent decision, Adoption of Ulrich, the Massachusetts Appeals Court addressed the termination of parental rights of a mother of five children, along with the mother’s entitlement to effective assistance of counsel.

The mother in this case had a lengthy criminal history and was the subject of five abuse prevention orders. The Department of Children and Families filed a care and protection proceeding on behalf of the children after the mother was arrested for stabbing the children’s father with a pair of scissors, with the children witnessing the incident. Temporary custody was initially granted to the maternal grandmother, then to a paternal aunt; however, after evidence of abuse in the aunt’s home emerged, the Department retained custody of the children.

In the following years, the mother’s willingness to work on her mental health and substance dependency issues fluctuated: at times, she was unwilling to enter a residential program or see her therapist, while at other times, she was willing to do so. Likewise, her visits with her children ranged from “successful to disastrous,” as the Court put it, some of the visits ending with the children running out of the room and crying and the mother hurling obscenities at them.

After a particularly tumultuous visit in which the mother declared that she was “done” and “these kids aren’t [my] issue, let their workers deal with them,” the Department informed the mother that her parental rights would be terminated. After a trial, the judge issued orders terminating the mother and father’s parental rights.

The mother appealed. After the mother entered the appeal, she motioned the Court to stay the appellate proceedings, so that she could bring a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, vying for a new trial in the Juvenile Court. A single appellate justice heard that motion and denied it. The Appeals Court acknowledged that the mother was entitled to the effective assistance of counsel in a termination of parental rights proceeding.

However, the Court agreed with the single justice, holding: “we discern no error of law or abuse of discretion in any choice by the single justice to consider the prospects of the mother’s new trial motion for success in the Juvenile Court if a stay were granted; indeed, such consideration is entirely consistent with the consideration of judicial economy…and the interest in prompt resolution of custody. Placing the appellate process on hold to allow prosecution of a fruitless new trial motion in the trial court would serve neither interest.”

The Appeals Court then looked at the crux of the mother’s claim for ineffective assistance of counsel: he claims that her attorney erred by not calling the maternal grandmother to testify at trial. The Court noted that the mother at one point accused the grandmother of fabricating claims of sexual assault, which made it entirely reasonable for the mother’s attorney not to call the grandmother as a witness, in order to avoid damaging testimony elicited on cross-examination. “In any event, the evidence of the mother’s unfitness was overwhelming, without regard to the matters about which the mother now claims the maternal grandmother should have testified,” the Court noted. “It is accordingly unlikely that the decision of trial counsel about which the mother now complains had any bearing on the result of the trial.”

The Appeals Court then considered the mother’s parental fitness, ultimately affirming the trial judge’s decision to terminate parental rights. As the Court described, parental rights can only be terminated when it is in the best interests of the child and when the judge determines that the parent is unfit. In this case, the Court held, there was ample evidence that the mother was unfit. Moreover, the Court noted that mere participation in services does not render a parent fit, without some discernible evidence of improvement of her parenting.

The Appeals Court also noted that it was in the best interests of each of the mother’s five children to terminate parental rights, allowing the children to be placed in homes which would assist them with their various mental health issues, early intervention services, therapy programs, and a stable environment.

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