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In re Adoption of C.A.S.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

June 21, 2017

IN RE: ADOPTION OF C.A.S., A MINOR APPEAL OF: B.A.S, JR., NATURAL FATHER

         Appeal from the Order Entered December 15, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Cambria County Orphans' Court at No(s): No. 2016-890 IVT

          BEFORE: OLSON, MOULTON, and STRASSBURGER, [*] JJ.

          OPINION

          STRASSBURGER, J.

         B.A.S., Jr. (Father), appeals from the order entered December 15, 2016, in the Court of Common Pleas of Cambria County, which terminated involuntarily his parental rights to his minor son, C.A.S. (Child). We vacate and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         We summarize the relevant factual and procedural history of this matter as follows. Child was born in January 2012 to Father and B.N. (Mother). N.T., 12/12/2016, at 15. Father and Mother lived together for approximately three years prior to Child's birth and separated approximately a year and one half after Child's birth. Id. According to Mother, she and Father separated as a result of Father's drug use, which included bath salts, heroin, crack cocaine, and pills. Id. at 16-17, 33. Meanwhile, Mother began dating J.O. (Boyfriend). Id. at 28. Mother and Boyfriend (collectively, the Petitioners) began dating approximately two and one half years prior to the termination proceedings, and began living together approximately six months later. Id. On September 22, 2016, the Petitioners filed a petition to terminate Father's parental rights involuntarily, along with a report of intention to adopt. The Petitioners averred that Father's parental rights should be terminated so that Boyfriend can adopt Child.

         The orphans' court conducted a termination hearing on December 12, 2016. Father appeared at the hearing pro se, and requested that the court continue the matter so that he could obtain an attorney. N.T., 12/12/2016, at 4. The court asked the Petitioners' counsel what notice he provided to Father regarding his right to an attorney, and Petitioners' counsel explained that he mailed Father a series of documents, including a "letter indicating that he's receiving paperwork relative to his rights as a parent, he has a right to a free attorney and to contact the Register of Wills if he should desire one." Id. at 4-5. Counsel continued, "it expressly says he must file the enclosed in forma pauperis statement within ten days of the scheduled date of the hearing and, if he fails to do so, that the court will assume that he waives his rights to request free legal counsel." Id. The court reviewed the documents described by the Petitioners' counsel, and asked Father whether he received them. Id. at 5-6. Father acknowledged that he did receive the documents, and that he contacted Laurel Legal Services in order to obtain counsel. Id. at 6. Father explained, "Laurel Legal called me and said that they couldn't represent me because they don't take custody cases." Id. The following discussion then took place.

THE COURT: It says, Dear [Father], you are receiving paperwork relative to your rights as a parent. If you feel that you might qualify for court-appointed counsel at no expense to you to represent you in these proceedings, you must complete and file this financial disclosure form, send it or deliver it to Patty J. Sharbaugh, Clerk of Orphans['] Court, Register of Wills, Cambria County Courthouse, with the address.
[Father]: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: Did you do that?
[Father]: I didn't get that until November 15 is when I signed for it, so I didn't get that until November 15. I called Laurel Legal to see if I could get --.
THE COURT: Okay. Now it didn't tell you to call Laurel Legal. It told you to call the Clerk of Courts Office; right?
[Father]: Well, I figured that's the way --.
THE COURT: Well, that's not ...

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