Law Court sets precedent: Protecting parental rights in guardianships
July 16, 2009
BANGOR, MAINE – The Law Court handed down a decision today in the matter of Guardianship of Jeremiah T., vacating the decision of the Probate Court which denied the petition of Eaton Peabody’s client, 'the mother', to terminate the guardianship of her minor child, and remanding for a new hearing. Associate probate attorney Jennifer Eastman served as lead counsel with the assistance and guidance of litigation partner Bill Devoe.
Eastman originally represented the mother a few years ago when she consented to the appointment of her grandparents as guardian to her young son because she was unable to care for her child at that time. After making significant improvements in her life, never straying from the goal of regaining custody of her son, the mother sought Eastman's assistance in terminating the guardianship, which the guardians opposed. During the intervening time, the guardianship statutes underwent significant amendments by the Legislature, shifting the burden of proof from the guardians to prove that continuation of the guardianship is in the best interests of the child, to the petitioner, here the mother, to prove that termination of the guardianship is in the best interests of the child. The Legislature also codified a specific list of factors to consider in analyzing the “best interests” of the child, none of which included any consideration of the mother’s constitutionally protected liberty interest in her parent-child relationship with her son.
At hearing before the Probate Court, the lower court applied the burden under the amended statutes, and held that mother’s parental rights were “not of constitutional dimension.” Eastman immediately appealed the decision of the Probate Court, arguing that the court should have applied the pre-amended version of the law to place the burden of proof on the guardians; and that the court’s failure to consider the mother’s fundamental right to parent her child violated her constitutional rights.
The Law Court agreed with both of the mother’s arguments, holding that, because the amendment to the statute substantially affected the legal consequences of the mother’s original consent to the guardianship, the statute in place at the time of her consent should apply. Notably, the Law Court also held that, in order to recognize a parent’s constitutional right to the care and custody of her child under the termination statute, “the guardianship must be terminated unless the guardian proves the mother is an unfit parent for the child and that continuation of the guardianship is in the child’s best interests.” This is the first time the Law Court has opined on the synergy between constitutionally protected parental rights and the statutory scheme surrounding termination of the guardianship of a minor child.
While Eastman and Devoe will return to Probate Court for a new hearing and continue to fight for the mother’s rights and the return of the mother’s son to her custody, this decision creates significant precedent protecting the fundamental rights of parents who make the difficult decision to temporarily relinquish custodial rights to their children by consenting to their guardianship.