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In New Hampshire, if you're charged with abuse or neglect of a child, you can no longer count on the state to provide you with a lawyer. Most states provide a defense for those who can't afford one.
And as New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein reports, some officials worry that parents and their children are suffering because of the new policy.
DAN GORENSTEIN, BYLINE: Lately, lots of abuse and neglect cases in New Hampshire start out something like this.
JUDGE SUSAN ASHLEY: One of the topics that we are going to go through today is making sure that you have a clear understanding of what the potential consequences of this type of case are...
GORENSTEIN: We're in a preliminary hearing with Judge Susan Ashley. The case is sealed, so we aren't using family names. Since the father doesn't have a lawyer, Judge Ashley is taking extra time to be sure he understands what's happening.
ASHLEY: Ultimately, if the court made a decision that your parental rights should be terminated, it would be at that point that you would no longer have any legal rights, duties or obligations. Do you understand that that's a potential consequence to this type of a case?
GORENSTEIN: The man understands that he could lose his four-year-old forever. He's being charged with neglect because he doesn't have anywhere for her to live right now. But what he needs to do to get the girl back, he's got no clue.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's kind of all happening really quick. And, you know, I - having a hard time kind of processing everything that's going on.
GORENSTEIN: For the first time in 30 years, the state isn't offering parents any legal representation. New Hampshire has now joined Mississippi as the only other state that doesn't provide lawyers in abuse and neglect proceedings. After nine months and hundreds of these cases, state officials say the vast majority of parents don't have lawyers. And many aren't fit to defend themselves. The 34-year-old father is an example of that.
and what's the highest level of education you have?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tenth grade. Yeah, I have dyslexia. I have a hard time reading and writing.
GORENSTEIN: The man's fiancee points to an emergency exit sign. He can't read it, which all makes lawyer Peter Brunette's job easier, kind of.
PETER BRUNETTE: It's like shooting fish in a barrel sometimes. And it's not fun.
GORENSTEIN: Brunette is an attorney for the state. His job is to argue against the parents.
BRUNETTE: Without a lawyer, there's no way they can navigate this system in a way that ensures that their rights are being adequately protected. And that's the problem, I think, that we're all struggling with right now.
GORENSTEIN: In New Hampshire, parents have about 12 months to shape up and address the source of the neglect. Sometimes that's counseling for substance abuse or mental illness, or getting out of a violent relationship. But when you add navigating a complicated legal world to that, Judge Susan Ashley worries it's too much for lots of parents.
ASHLEY: Suddenly those 12 months have slipped away. And we find ourselves at a permanency hearing where the parent hasn't done what they needed to do to correct the conditions of neglect.
GORENSTEIN: Ultimately, Ashley worries too many parents are incapable of sharing relevant information, making it that much harder for the court to get it right.
University of Michigan law professor Vivek Sankaran predicts New Hampshire may get exactly what it's historically tried to avoid - a generation of kids who grow up without their parents.
VIVEK SANKARAN: What makes what happened in New Hampshire so striking, the practice of child welfare has become much more sophisticated. And then you get this, where we've just reverted back to where we were in the 1960s or 1950s.
GORENSTEIN: The question of whether parents have a constitutional right to an attorney has made its way to the state Supreme Court. Sankaran says child advocates around the country are watching closely. He fears others may follow New Hampshire's lead, if the court rules with the state.
The 34-year old father, he's not thinking about policy implications.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think people just look at people that are losing their kids or, you know, I think people just look at them like: Oh, they're scumbags. They're not. I don't think people understand it ain't always due to abuse or anything like that. Sometimes it's over financial problems of why they need help.
GORENSTEIN: The father says social workers say they want to work with him, get him and his daughter back together. He doesn't think she'll end up adopted, but without a lawyer he guesses it's possible.
For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein in Concord, New Hampshire.
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