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Sampson v. Department of Services for Children Youth & Their Families (DSCYF)

Supreme Court of Delaware

October 25, 2017

RONALD SAMPSON, [1] Respondent Below, Appellant,

          Submitted: August 25, 2017

         Court Below-Family Court of the State of Delaware File No. CN16-03366 Petition No. 16-15091

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; SEITZ and TRAYNOR, Justices.


          Gary F. Traynor, Justice

         This 25th day of October 2017, upon consideration of the parties' briefs and the record below, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) The appellant, Ronald Sampson ("the Father"), filed this appeal from a March 21, 2017 Family Court order accepting the Commissioner's order granting the Department of Services for Children Youth and Their Families' ("DSCYF") petition for substantiation of the Father for abuse on the Child Protection Registry at Child Protection Level IV.[2] We find no error or abuse of discretion in the Family Court's decision. Accordingly, we affirm the Family Court's judgment.

         (2) On May 23, 2016, DSCYF filed a petition for substantiation against the Father based on his alleged sexual abuse of his then seven-year old daughter who has Down Syndrome ("the Daughter"). DSCYF attached a Notice of Intent to Substantiate for Abuse or Neglect and Enter on Child Protection Registry, an Amended Notice, and the Father's request for a hearing in the Family Court. The substantiation hearing was scheduled for November 22, 2016.

         (3) On November 15, 2016, the Father filed a motion for appointment of counsel. At the beginning of the November 22, 2016 substantiation hearing, the Family Court Commissioner denied the Father's motion for appointment of counsel. The Commissioner then heard testimony from the Daughter's school nurse, the Daughter's teacher, a Children's Choice social worker, a Division of Family Services supervisor, and the mother of the Daughter ("the Mother"). Before the hearing, the Commissioner reviewed Child Advocacy Center ("CAC") interviews with the Daughter and her brother.

         (4) In an order dated November 29, 2016, the Commissioner found by a preponderance of the evidence that the Father had sexually abused the Daughter in 2015 and 2016 and placed him on Level IV of the Children Protection Registry. In an order dated December 2, 2016, the Commissioner clarified her denial of the Father's motion for appointment of counsel. On December 29, 2016, the Father sought review of the Commissioner's decision.

         (5) In an order dated March 21, 2017, the Family Court found the Commissioner did not err in denying the Father's motion for appointment of counsel, substantiating the Father for sexual abuse, and placing the Father on Level IV of the Child Protection Registry. The Family Court accepted the Commissioner's November 29, 2016 order. This appeal followed.

         (6) This Court's review of a Family Court decision includes a review of both the law and the facts.[3] Conclusions of law are reviewed de novo.[4] Factual findings will not be disturbed on appeal unless they are clearly erroneous.[5] When the determination of facts turns upon the credibility of witnesses who testified before the trier of fact, this Court will not substitute its opinion for that of the trier of fact.[6]On appeal, the Father's arguments may be summarized as follows: (i) the Family Court erred in denying his motion for appointment of counsel; and (ii) there was insufficient evidence to support his substantiation for sexual abuse of the Daughter.

          (7) The Father argues the Family Court's denial of his motion for appointment of counsel deprived him of procedural due process. "The right to have counsel appointed at State expense in any proceeding is determined by the due process requirements in the United States Constitution and the Delaware Constitution."[7]Under the United States Constitution, due process "is not a fixed concept but implicitly means 'fundamental fairness' in the context of specific circumstances."[8]The Delaware Constitution "explicitly guarantee[s] fundamental fairness in the administration of justice for the citizens of Delaware, with regard to the specific context, in all causes of action."[9]

         (8) In deciding what due process requires, both the United States Supreme Court and this Court evaluate the factors set forth in Mathews v. Eldridge.[10] These factors are: (i) the private interests at stake; (ii) the government's interest; and (iii) the risk the procedures used will result in erroneous decisions.[11] In the context of termination-of-parental-right proceedings, the United States Supreme Court has held the Due Process Clause does not require the appointment of counsel for indigent parents in every proceeding.[12] Delaware courts follow a case-by-case approach to the appointment of counsel in termination, as well as dependency/neglect proceedings, but routinely appoint counsel to represent indigent parents in such proceedings.[13]

         (9) The Father argues that parents have a strong private interest in having custody of their children and that the risk of an erroneous deprivation of that right outweighs the government's interest in summary adjudication. As the Commissioner and Family Court recognized, however, this was a substantiation proceeding, not a dependency/neglect or termination-of-parental-rights proceeding. The potential consequences of a substantiation hearing-placement on the Child Protection Registry-are significantly different than the potential consequences of a termination of parental rights hearing. "The primary purpose of the Child Protection Registry is to protect children and to ensure the safety of children in child care, health care and public education facilities."[14] Placement on Level IV of the ...

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