By Clair McFarland, General Assignment Reporter
A Cheyenne man who did not show up to a scheduled court hearing to argue his merits as a father rightfully lost his parental rights, the Wyoming Supreme Court has determined.
Frank Landis Roberts IV asked the state Supreme Court last year to reverse a district court’s decision to terminate his parental rights for three young children.
Terminations of parental rights take away a parent’s legal rights to his or her children. The Wyoming Department of Family Services, which instigates terminations, has described them in the past as a last-resort effort to intervene in children’s lives where reunification with parents is not safely feasible.
Roberts, who was often homeless and whose attorney described him as impoverished, argued before the high court that his lawyer in the termination case was ineffective.
The Wyoming Supreme Court found that in parental termination cases, even indigent defendants aren’t guaranteed a right to counsel, since state statute says the court “may” appoint attorneys to indigent parties.
Parental termination is a civil, not a criminal, proceeding. Defendants are constitutionally guaranteed attorneys in criminal proceedings.
DFS’s interest likely began April 11, 2019, when Roberts called the Cheyenne Police Department to report that his three young children were out of control, the court’s order states.
“When an officer responded, he discovered the home was filthy and in disarray,” the document continues, adding that the officer arrested Roberts on an outstanding warrant. Since no one else was home to care for the children, they were taken into state custody.
The state filed a neglect petition against Roberts that same day, the order says.
DFS testified in district court proceedings that case workers tried working with Roberts, but he was “abusive” and remained homeless and generally unemployed, though he reported having a job as a dishwasher in 2021.
Roberts did not tell his caseworker who his employer was or how much he was making from the reported dishwasher job, court documents state.
After DFS asked the district court for a termination proceeding, Roberts did not file a written dispute by the case deadline.
DFS asked the court clerk to enter a default against Roberts, or a statement of favor toward DFS’s argument due to Roberts’ inaction. The clerk did so on April 16, 2021.
At the hearing where DFS made its case before the court, Roberts’ attorney said the father wanted to enter a motion against the default. He said he had a “meritorious defense” regarding his behavior as a father or right to keep the children.
The court indulged Roberts’ request for a default hearing; it was set for Oct. 22, 2021, at 8:30 in the morning.
Roberts’ attorney arrived at 8:45. Roberts never arrived to the hearing, though his attorney had asked him to arrive by 9 a.m.
The judge denied Roberts’ earlier request to contest the default against him.
“Maybe Mr. Roberts has a meritorious defense, but that has not been demonstrated today,” the judge said during the hearing. “And again, I’ll stress neither (his attorney) nor Mr. Roberts are present for their motion.”
After Roberts’ attorney did arrive, he said that Roberts was difficult to contact because “(h)is poverty situation (was) as bleak as any (I’ve) ever seen.”
The attorney “later admitted DFS presented ‘a lot of evidence’ demonstrating (Roberts) failed to complete his case plan.”
The children’s mother also had a pending trial to terminate parental rights. The order does not indicate the result of that trial.
DFS is legally unable to comment on specific child cases.