Indigent mother had a right to lawyer when she lost custody of her child in private adoption

The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously recognized a right to free legal representation for low-income parents challenging private adoptions of their children. This Supreme Court decision found for the first time in New Jersey that low-income parents have a right to counsel in proceedings to end parental rights, even when the adoption is initiated by a private party.

The ACLU of New Jersey submitted a friend-of-the-court brief (PDF) in the case, which involved a low-income mother who had placed her daughter for private foster care. When the foster parents sought to adopt the child and terminate the mother’s parental rights, the mother was forced to represent herself at trial. As a result, she lost the case and her rights to parent her child were terminated. The Supreme Court’s ruling affirmed an appellate court decision that also upheld the mother’s rights.

The following statement can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney Rebecca Livengood:

Rebecca Livengood

“Today’s decision means that New Jersey parents will no longer face the risk of unfairly losing their children simply because they couldn’t afford a lawyer. Low-income New Jerseyans already confront significant hurdles in protecting their rights in court; lack of representation in private adoption proceedings will no longer be among them.

“The Supreme Court’s decision reflects both the fundamental importance of the right to parent and the role of legal representation in ensuring due process, especially when the relationship between a parent and child is at stake.

“This ruling means that parents who oppose a private adoption of their children will not be forced by poverty to relinquish their parental rights without a fair hearing.”

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