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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Clarifies Incarcerated Parents’ Rights

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court entered orders in two separate cases that affect the rights of incarcerated parents. The first reiterates the principle that a parent’s incarceration, standing alone, cannot constitute proper grounds for the termination of his or her parental rights. The second held counseling is not a prerequisite to a court’s engaging in its evaluation of a child’s best interest in the context of a request for prison visits.

The Court’s first opinion concerned a petition by the York County Children and Youth Services (CYS) to terminate the parental rights of C.S. (Father) and to change the placement goals of his two toddler children from reunification to adoption. The trial court denied the petition, but the Superior Court reversed that denial on appeal.

The Supreme Court said it “has long held that a parent’s absence or failure to support his or her child due to incarceration is not, in itself, conclusively determinate of the issue of parental abandonment.” Rather, a court “must inquire whether the parent has utilized those resources at his or her command while in prison to continue and pursue a close relationship with the child or children.”

Evidence presented at a hearing before the trial court showed the Father had cooperated with service planning, had signed all necessary releases, remained in written and telephonic contact with CYS, provided CYS with documentation of his completion of therapeutic prison programs, and that he had not had any incidents of misconduct while imprisoned. Additionally, he maintained contact with the children by sending them cards on a monthly basis and participated in “Reading to your Children” by sending a video of him reading a book to his children. His requests for visits or “virtual visitation” were denied due to distance or unavailability of facilities. He had also bought a pre-paid phone card, but the foster parents refused his several attempts to call the children.

The trial court, the Supreme Court held, was in the best position to determine if the “Father’s sentence was so great as to foreclose the possibility of the successful maintenance of the parent-child relationship, and that termination of Father’s parental rights would not serve the best interests of the children.” It was error for the Superior Court to substitute its judgment on the evidence, and its order terminating parental rights was reversed. The Supreme Court, however, remanded for the trial court to examine the goal change petition “under the appropriate analytical model.” See: In Re: R.I.S. & A.I.S., 36 A.3d 567 (Pa. 2011).

The second case concerned a petition filed by D.R.C., Sr. (Father), who is serving a life sentence for first degree murder. He petitioned the trial court for visitation with his son. That court denied the petition, but the Superior Court remanded for him to present evidence indicating he “no longer poses a grave threat or harm to” his son. The trial court denied the petition after a hearing because the Father had not had counseling as required by 23 Pa. C.S. § 5303 (c).

The Superior Court, on the second appeal ordered the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) to choose a qualified professional to evaluate the father and provide counseling. After further proceedings, DOC appealed that order after intervening. The Supreme Court considered the extensive arguments of both parties.

It found the holding in Etter v. Rose, 684 A. 2d 1092 (Pa. Super 1996) set seven factors to be considered in deciding a question of visitation where a parent is incarcerated. “All of these factors can be evaluated by the court without first providing counseling to the inmate. Consequently, we find the counseling required by section 5303 (c) is not a prerequisite to a court’s engaging in its evaluation of a child’s best interest on the context of a request for prison visits.” The rationale behind that filing was that §5303 was intended to protect non-incarcerated parental visitation, which is unsupervised while all prison visits are supervised. The matter was remanded for an expedited hearing on the Father’s petition. See: D.R.C., Sr. v. J.A.Z., 612 Pa. 519, 31 A.3d 677 (Pa. 2011).

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Related legal case

D.R.C., Sr. v. J.A.Z.