A judge may draw a negative inference from a parent’s absence and find that the parent is unfit, terminating parental rights, according to a recent decision of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

In Adoption of Talik, the Court terminated parental rights of a mother failed to attend a trial regarding reunification with her child.  Adoption of Talik, 92 Mass. App. Ct. 367 (2017). The child, born in 2013, tested positive for narcotics at birth and was placed in the custody of the Department of Children and Families, then shortly after discharged to the care of his foster parents.

DCF drafted a service plan for the mother, with the goal of reunifying the mother and the child. Under that plan, the mother was to participate in substance abuse treatment, provide toxicology screens, and attend visits with her child, among other tasks. Due to a lack of attendance, the mother was discharged from the program.

Soon thereafter, DCF’s goal changed to that of adoption. A relative of the child who resided in California expressed interest in having the child placed with her, and California Child Protective Services conducted a placement study. The study concluded that the relative’s home did not meet the proper standards for placement as applied in Massachusetts, and the child remained with his foster parents. The mother sued, claiming that DCF abused its discretion, and seeking to have the child placed in the care of the relative.

During the trial, the mother’s attorney was present, but the mother was absent despite having had notice of the proceedings. The judge issued a decision terminating the mother’s parental rights and approving DCF’s plan to have the child adopted by his foster parents. On appeal, the mother argued an abuse of discretion by the trial judge.

The Appeals Court affirmed the trial judge’s decision. “[A]n adverse inference may be drawn against a parent who, despite having received notice, is absent from a child custody or termination proceeding, even though such an inference would be impermissible in a criminal matter absent affirmative evidence showing consciousness of guilt,” the Court stated. “Where a parent has notice of a proceeding to determine his parental rights and the parent does not attend or provide an explanation for not attending, the absence may suggest that the parent has abandoned his rights in the child or cannot meet the child’s best interests.” Id., at 371-372.

The Court further explained that the trial judge has discretion to determine whether to draw such an inference, considering whether such inference is fair and reasonable based on all applicable circumstances. In the present case, the Court noted, the judge did not abuse his discretion, given the mother’s history of substance abuse, long history of domestic violence, failure to continue treatment, and noncompliance with the service plan.

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