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Can a Florida parent lose child custody rights based on poverty?

Many parents will encounter some form of financial turmoil at one point or another during the course of their lives. Few, however, believe that financial difficulties will result in the loss of their parental rights. That said, a recent high-profile case exemplifies the risks that parents in Florida and elsewhere take when approaching a child custody challenge without legal counsel.

The case centers on a little girl with special needs and a mother who was struggling to make ends meet. Unable to provide for her child's needs, the mother chose to leave her daughter in the care of a facility that offers both adoption and short-term foster care services. Believing that she would be able to get back on her feet and take the child back into her home, the mother felt that she had no option other than to leave the child in that facility.

Instead of providing for the child's special needs on a short-term basis, however, the facility set about finding and supporting an adoptive family for the girl, with the intent of making a permanent adoptive placement. Part of that process involves seeking a termination of the mother's parental rights. The mother actively participated in the court case but was unable to afford an attorney and chose to represent herself.

The end result was the termination of her parental rights and the ability of the adoptive family to move forward in legally adopting the little girl. Upon appeal, the higher court examined the issue of whether a parent who cannot afford legal counsel is entitled to receive that service free of charge. In cases where a state's Department of Social Services seeks the termination of parental rights, parents are already afforded that opportunity. However, in cases where parental rights are challenged by a third party, parents who are unable to afford legal fees are largely left on their own. The outcome of this case has set legal precedent in the state where this family resides and could have wide ranging ramifications for parents across the country, including in Florida.

Source: courierpostonline.com, "NJ top court: Birth mom has right to lawyer in custody case", Salvador Rizzo, July 30, 2016

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