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Fact of Incarceration May Be Used Against Father in Maine Parental Rights Termination Proceeding

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled on August 30, 2016, that a parent's incarceration may be used as a factor by a court in parental rights termination cases. The ruling affirmed a lower court's order stripping a father of his rights to his three-year-old son.

Alijah K. was born in November 2013, and only one month later the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) instituted a child protection proceeding when the child was only in his mother's care. Available court records do not detail the basis upon which MDHHS sought the protective order against the mother. After receiving the court filing, the mother indicated she did not know where the father was, only that he was somewhere in Pennsylvania and that he had no involvement with, or even knowledge of, baby Alijah.

In March 2015, MDHHS filed a petition to terminate both parents' rights. By that time the father had been located at a prison in Pennsylvania. He did not know he had a son, and was not sure if the child was his, but was later confirmed to be the father through DNA testing.

A hearing was held in a Maine district court on June 16, 2015, and the father participated via telephone from prison. The father stated he was in prison for possession of a firearm and was due to be released sometime between 2016 and 2019. The court found that even though he claimed not to have known he was the father until testing confirmed it, the father did know he had intimate relations with the mother around nine months before he was horn. Once testing was completed, the court said the father only wrote to the child on a few occasions, and only in response to letters from Alijah's foster parents. The court concluded that due to the father's "lengthy incarceration" he is therefore "unable to protect the child from jeopardy within a time reasonably calculated to meet the child's needs, and failed to make a good faith effort to rehabilitate and reunify with the child." Based on these findings, the district court terminated the father's parental rights. The father appealed.

Finding that no court decision or other authority gives a parent a "pass" on parental responsibilities as a result of being in prison, the Maine high court said a "parent who is unable to fulfill his parental responsibilities by virtue of being incarcerated is entitled to no more protection from the termination of his parental rights than a parent who is unable to fulfill his parental responsibilities as a result of other reasons."

The state's high court went on to say that while incarceration cannot be used as the only factor to support termination of a parent's rights, it may be used as a factor.

In this case the court ruled that the district court was correct in terminating the father's rights not solely due to his incarceration, but also because his location in another state precludes him from visiting the child, the child has been in state care virtually all of his life and the father may not be released from prison until 2019, and the father has foregone any attempts at creating a bond with the child.

"There is no longstanding parent-child relationship," and the "child has never even met his" father, the court ruled, finding that the evidence supported the district court's ruling.

The father and the mother were not named in the court decision to protect the identity of the child. See: In re Alijah K., No. Cum-15-319 (2016 ME 137), August 30, 2016.


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Related legal case

In re Alijah K.