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Decision to Terminate Parental Rights of Incarcerated Father Vacated After His Conviction Overturned on Appeal

On July 7, 2016, the Rhode Island Supreme Court reversed a Family Court order terminating the parental rights of a man locked up for first degree murder after that conviction was reversed while the termination case was pending on appeal. The Family Court had rested its decision to terminate the man's parental rights primarily on the fact of his conviction and lengthy incarceration.

Tony Gonzalez was initially convicted of first degree murder and given a life sentence in January 2012. He had previously been living with his infant daughter, Izabella and her mother, but not at the time of his arrest. In March 2012, after Izabella's mother was hospitalized, the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) filed a neglect petition to terminate the parental rights of both the mother and Gonzalez. The primary basis for terminating Gonzalez's rights, according to DCYF, was the "length of his incarceration."

DCYF presented Gonzalez with a case plan which placed Izabella with her step-grandmother, but he refused to sign it. DCYF's petition alleged that Gonzalez was an unfit parent "by reason of conduct or condition seriously detrimental to the child," citing his imprisonment "of such duration as to render it improbable for him to care for Izabella."

On April 2, 2015, the Family Court issued a decree terminating Gonzalez's parental rights to Izabella, largely basing the decision on the fact that Gonzalez was convicted of a crime of violence, his prospects for release were unlikely, and he was previously indicted for physical abuse of Izabella.

Gonzalez appealed the termination decree. While that appeal was pending in the Rhode Island Supreme Court, that same court overturned his murder conviction based on search and seizure Fourth Amendment violations.

Because the decision of the Family Court was mostly based on Gonzalez's conviction and expected lengthy incarceration, and that conviction was vacated, "the Family Court did not have sufficient factual support to find, by clear and convincing evidence, that (Gonzalez) was an unfit parent," the court held.

However, the high court did emphasize that Gonzalez faces a new criminal trial, and that future factual developments "may serve as powerful evidence of unfitness."

The case was thus remanded to the Family Court with instructions to hear the case "as expeditiously as practicable," and to allow "further evidence" as that court sees fit. See: In re Izabella G., No. 2015-162-Appeal (S. Ct. RI), (July 7, 2016).

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