- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Indigent parents facing a possible loss of parental rights have a constitutional right to legal counsel whether the state or another party initiates court proceedings, the Montana Supreme Court has found.

The ruling came in the case of a Lincoln County woman who appealed the termination of her parental rights to two children based on a petition filed by the children’s stepmother, who sought to adopt them.

The justices found that if the state had sought to terminate the woman’s parental rights and she could not afford an attorney, one would have been appointed. They found the petition filed by the stepmother put the mother in a position to lose a fundamental right and that she was entitled to an attorney.

The Dec. 2 ruling reversed the termination and awarded the mother a new hearing with legal representation.

The stepmother argued that the children’s mother had numerous criminal convictions related to drugs, that 11 child protection reports had been filed alleging drug use, inadequate food, clothing and poor school attendance, and that the mother’s sister took guardianship of the mother’s oldest son in 2009.

In March 2013, the oldest son was sentenced to the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility for sexually abusing two young children, court records said.

In November 2013, the stepmother petitioned for termination of the mother’s parental rights over the younger children and sought to adopt them. A judge approved that petition in January 2014.

Attorneys for the mother argued she should have been appointed an attorney.

The stepmother argued that the mother had a public defender when she lost custody of her oldest son and there was more than adequate reason for her to lose custody of the younger children, who told the court they wanted to be adopted by their stepmother and didn’t trust their mother.

The Supreme Court did not address the argument that there was enough evidence that the mother should lose her parental rights.

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