Charlotte, N.C. – The North Carolina Supreme Court has ruled on a case in which Charlotte partner Will Esser served as the pro bono attorney representing a neglected child. The ruling clarifies an important issue in juvenile cases: the circumstances under which the parental rights of an incarcerated person can be terminated.
Will Esser took on the case two years ago as part of the North Carolina’s Guardian ad Litem program, which finds attorneys to represent abused and neglected children who would otherwise go to court without someone to advocate for them. Over the past two fiscal years, Will and other Parker Poe attorneys have handled more Guardian ad Litem cases than attorneys at any other firm in North Carolina, according to state data.
In this particular case, Will says the Supreme Court ruling brings significant stability to a 4-year-old girl’s life.
“The only thing left standing between the child being adopted by loving foster parents was the father not wanting to give up his parental rights,” he says. “With the finality that the Supreme Court now provided, that adoption can go forward, and a little girl – who has never known anybody but the family she’s with – can be permanently adopted by them.”
The child was 2 months old when the New Hanover County Department of Social Services (DSS) took her into its care. The mother voluntarily gave up parental rights, and a trial court terminated the father’s parental rights. But an appeals court gave him back those rights, ruling only the mother was responsible since the father was in prison at the time of neglect.
The state Supreme Court overturned that decision, reaffirming its precedent that “incarceration, standing alone, is neither a sword nor a shield in a termination of parental rights decision.” The Supreme Court ruled DSS met the burden of proving by “clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that grounds existed to justify termination.” The justices noted the father’s failure to consistently comply with court directives after his release, as well as his history of criminal activity and substance abuse.
The appeal is among 13 that Will has handled as a Guardian ad Litem advocate since 2012. He also continually recruits new attorneys into the pro bono program.
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