June 30, 2022
In re Amias I. (SC 20671)
Mother appealed the TPR with respect to her children, N, M, and D. DCF had filed TPR petitions after the children had been adjudicated neglected, committed to DCF custody, and placed in pre-adoptive foster homes. The removal of the children was precipitated in part by the hostile, paranoid, and erratic behavior of Father, who had threatened a social worker, refused necessary medical treatment for D and special education services for N and M, and withdrew N and M from school.
At trial, the children’s attorney indicated that M and D wished to remain with their respective foster parents and that N wished to be reunited with the biological parents, but only if they were together. In terminating parental rights with respect to all three, the trial court found, by clear and convincing evidence, that DCF had made reasonable efforts to reunify, but that the parents had failed to achieve a sufficient degree of personal rehabilitation, and that TPR was in the best interest of each child.
On appeal, Mother claimed that the children had a constitutional right to conflict free representation, and that the trial court had violated that right by failing to inquire into whether their attorney had a conflict of interest. This was predicated on the fact that M and D wanted to remain in their respective foster homes, whereas N conditionally expressed an interest in being reunified.
Here, the Supreme Court declined to determine both whether children have a constitutional right to conflict free representation in dependency proceedings, as well as whether the children’s competing goals regarding reunification triggered the trial court’s duty to inquire into their attorney’s ability to advocate effectively on behalf of each child. The reason for such, it held, was that even if this Court assumed that such a right existed, any violation of it here was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, i.e. the result of the trial would have been the same if the children had been represented by separate counsel. Specifically, N’s desire to be reunited with the parents was contingent on the parents being together as a couple at the time of the trial, and the record clearly indicated that there was no possibility that the court would have permitted the children to return to Mother’s care in light of its findings concerning her failure to rehabilitate, her lack of candor regarding her relationship with Father, and her inability or unwillingness to protect the children from Father, with whom the court would not have permitted the children to live under any circumstances.
Additionally, this Court declined Mother’s request to treat the trial court’s failure to inquire into the attorney’s alleged conflict of interest as a structural error subject to automatic reversal. It reasoned that the significant differences between dependency proceedings and other judicial proceedings, in addition to the policy of avoiding undue delays in ensuring permanency for children, worked against applying a per se reversible error rule in dependency cases. Further, it found that a per se rule of automatic reversal was unwarranted when, as in the present case, the reviewing court can and does determine that the claimed error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. It held that reversal under the plain error doctrine was equally unwarranted, given that Mother could not demonstrate that the failure to reverse the judgments would result in manifest injustice.