The chief justice of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court has ordered that all pending private adoption cases be reviewed to ensure that children at the center of those disputes have attorneys appointed to represent their interests.
The court would not comment on what prompted the review, but the probate and family court has been under scrutiny for its recent handling of a case involving a 7-year-old Hardwick boy who has been in a coma since last month, after his father allegedly beat him and refused to provide him with food and water.
In a memo to judges and court personnel, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe, Chief Justice Angela M. Ordoñez wrote that she wanted the review to be completed by Sept. 10. The judge pointed to a 2012 Supreme Judicial Court decision that affirmed that children and indigent parents have a constitutional right to a lawyer in all disputed adoption cases.
It was not clear Wednesday how many cases will be subject to review. But the state probate and family courts handle about 200 to 300 contested private adoption cases a year, according to the state public defender agency.
In the Hardwick case, the boy’s grandmother, who was his legal guardian and had raised him almost since birth, had petitioned the court to adopt him in 2012, but another family member had objected later that year, according to a person familiar with the case.
This development should have triggered the immediate appointment of a lawyer to represent the boy, under the SJC decision issued earlier that year and cited by Ordoñez.
However, when the boy’s case was ultimately decided, at a seven-minute hearing in June 2014, no lawyer was present to represent the child’s interests. At that hearing, the judge set aside the grandmother’s adoption petition and granted custody of the boy to the father, whom the child barely knew.
Even though all family members agreed to the arrangement, including the grandmother, the boy still should have had an attorney as a result of his previous contested adoption case, according to family law specialists.
That lawyer could have raised questions about whether it was in the boy’s best interests to place him with the father, whom other relatives now say had a history of violence and mental illness.
“It all has to do with a judge making a reasoned decision based on the facts, and a lawyer can bring out those facts,” said Sanford N. Katz, professor of family law at Boston College Law School.
The seven-minute hearing was the subject of a Boston Globe story on Aug. 15.
Five days later, on Aug. 20, Ordoñez issued her memo regarding contested adoption cases. “If counsel has not been appointed, steps must be taken to have counsel appointed forthwith,” Ordoñez wrote.
Lawyers are routinely appointed to represent children in disputed adoption cases in which a state agency such as the Department of Children and Families is moving to terminate a parent’s rights.
But attorneys have not always been appointed in private cases involving a family member, such as a grandparent, petitioning for adoption, as was the case with the Hardwick boy. The Globe is not naming the boy to protect his privacy.
In a statement Wednesday, the Trial Court said the review was designed “to make sure that everyone handling contested adoption proceedings has all of the relevant legal information readily available in the adjudication of complex and sensitive matters of this nature.”
The court would not comment on any connection to the Hardwick case, saying, “Adoption cases are impounded by statute, and the court is unable to confirm nor deny information from adoption cases, including whether a child has received counsel.”
Charles P. Kindregan, a professor of law at Suffolk University, said it is vital that children have attorneys to repesent them in disputed adoption cases because they lead to the termination of a parent’s rights and the creation of a new family unit.
“It’s the child’s interests [that] are most at stake in cases like this,” Kindregan said. “They are being deprived of their parents, and they may wind up in a whole new home. So their interests need protection.”
Andrew Cohen, the appellate panel director for the children and family division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state public defender agency, applauded the official review. He said he had not heard of any instances in which judges had failed to appoint attorneys for children since the 2012 ruling, and was not sure what prompted Ordoñez to take on the issue now.
“I think it’s great that she’s reminding judges of how important it is,” said Cohen, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the 2012 case. “Children and indigent parents should have a right to counsel to make sure their rights are protected.”
The Hardwick boy has been in a coma since July 14, when paramedics carried him from his father’s home with bruises across his body and burns on his feet.
He weighed 38 pounds, having lost 12 to 15 pounds in recent weeks. Authorities say the father, Randall Lints, had kept his son in his bedroom and starved and dehydrated him to stop him from urinating on the floor. Last week, Lints was ordered held on $200,000 bail.
The Department of Children and Families, which had been monitoring the boy since February, when it received back-to-back complaints that Lints was neglecting the child, is reviewing its own handling of the case. Officials have acknowledged that a DCF worker visited the home just two weeks before the boy fell into a coma and his father called 911.