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Utah Supreme Court Reverses Termination of Prisoner’s Parental Rights

On December 6, 2016, the Supreme Court of Utah reversed the termination of a prisoner’s parental rights because the juvenile court had interpreted a state statute as prohibiting the appointment of counsel for the prisoner.

C.B.S. is a Utah prisoner who gave birth to E.K.S. while she was on probation and facing prison time for probation violations and new criminal charges. She asked her sister and brother-in-law to care for her daughter until she was released, as adoptive parents. Two months later her probation was revoked and she was sent to prison to serve out her original zero-to-five-year sentence. The adoptive parents filed a petition to terminate C.B.S.’s parental rights and award them custody of E.K.S.

C.B.S. responded to the petition by denying the allegations and requesting appointment of counsel. The juvenile court rejected her request, stating it was not permitted under Utah Code § 78A-6-111(2). The court did not perform a due process analysis before denying counsel, terminating C.B.S.’s parental rights and awarding custody of E.K.S. to the adoptive parents.

On appeal, the Utah Supreme Court held that although the language of § 78A-6-111(2) appeared to prohibit the appointment of counsel in all private cases in juvenile court, the statute was not facially unconstitutional because it had not been shown there were no cases in which it could be constitutionally applied. However, even privately-initiated termination proceedings involve sufficient state action to trigger constitutional due process protections.

In this case, the juvenile court erred when it failed to conduct an analysis of whether due process required the appointment of counsel – starting with a determination of whether C.B.S. was indigent, as decided in Lassiter v. Department of Social Services, 452 U.S. 18 (1981) and In re K.A.S., 2016 UT 55 (Utah 2016).

Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the juvenile court in part and remanded the case for the lower court to determine whether C.B.S. was indigent and, if so, to conduct a due process analysis in light of the above cases. See: In re E.K.S., 2016 UT 56, 387 P.3d 1032 (Utah 2016). 

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Related legal case

In re E.K.S.