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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Brooklyn Child Custody Cases Can be Impacted by Drug Abuse

Alcohol or drug abuse by parents can have a significant impact on the outcome of a Brooklyn child custody claim. Many times, such issues are at the root of why the claim was brought in the first place.

But drug use or even abuse is not grounds enough to terminate a person's parental rights. Brooklyn ACS attorneys know that the courts will be looking closely at the impact substance abuse had on the child, the parent's ability to meet the child's needs and whether the parent has taken steps to curtail his or her use.

The recent case of In re Interest of J.S., before the Iowa Supreme Court, underscored that a parent's status as an addict is not grounds enough on which to adjudicate a child as one in need of state assistance, which is the first step in potential termination of parental rights.

According to court records, the case involves a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old whose mother had, according to state social workers, used methamphetamine intravenously while caring for her daughters. The social worker indicated that the residence maintained by the mother for the girls was clean, and the mother appeared to be "very nurturing" to the 9-year-old. The younger girl was staying with her grandmother in order to finish her school year in their previous hometown in Nebraska.

The mother indicated that she had retained a retail store job, but was fired when she and her daughter became sick and she missed too much work. She admitted prior methamphetamine use, saying she was clean for seven years, but then relapsed in 2012. She conceded that authorities had removed her children before due to her drug use. She later completed a court-ordered program, and the children were returned. She admitted to another relapse in March 2013, but said the girls were not present.

Later, after a period of time during which social workers could not reach her, she came into the offices at the agency's request. She indicated the girls were with her mother, she had been staying with a boyfriend and had been using. Social workers noted her odd behavior during the interview, which involved wildly swinging emotions, from laughing to crying to anger. A drug test confirmed substances in her system, and staffers who administered the test believed she was under the influence at the time.

Child protection workers arrived at the grandmother's home the next day. They found the residence to be spacious, clean, appropriately furnished and the children appeared well taken care of.

The mother stated she visited the children with the grandmother's supervision, but that she ultimately wanted the girls back in her care. She said she changed her phone number, ended a number of unhealthy relationships and was willing to attend inpatient treatment.

She did later attend outpatient treatment, but then relapsed again and was admitted for residential treatment. At this point, the state filed a petition alleging that the girls should be classified as "children in need of assistance." This essentially would take formal custody away from the mother.

The mother was not represented by an attorney in court. She did not object to any of the state's exhibits and she presented no evidence of her own. The court declined immediate adjudication, instead calling for another hearing. Yet again, the mother had no legal representation, and did not refute any of the items the state entered into evidence. 

Subsequently, the court ordered the girls to be formally placed in the care of their maternal grandmother.

At that point, the mother retained a lawyer and appealed. The appellate court reversed, finding that the state failed to meet its burden of proof to show that the girls needed to be adjudicated as children in need of assistance. The state then sought review from the Iowa Supreme Court.

The high court indicated that simply showing that a parent was a methamphetamine addict - without more - isn't sufficient evidence to establish that there is an immediate risk of physical injury to the child.

In New York, there have been cases where a parent with a history of substance abuse was chosen to be a more fit parent than other relatives. An example is Worowski v. Worowski, a 1983 decision rendered by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, First Department. Here, the court ruled that a mother with a history of alcoholism who was improving was a more fit parent than a 74-year-old father who had little to no meaningful interaction with the child.

This is not to say that New York family courts will turn a blind eye to children who suffer as a result of a parent's addiction. However, addiction alone is not necessarily enough to warrant stripping the parent of custody rights. Every case will be different.

Consulting an experienced family law attorney is the best way to determine your options.

If you need assistance in dealing with New York ACS, call our offices at (718) 864-2011.

Additional Resources:

In re: Interest of J.S., April 25, 2014, Iowa Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Failure to Follow Brooklyn Child Custody Orders Can Result in Sanctions, May 1, 2014, Brooklyn ACS Attorney Blog

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