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Matter of Bobbijean P. (Challenging a court ruling prohibiting a homeless woman from becoming pregnant)

This case involves a challenge to a Family Court decision prohibiting a homeless woman from becoming pregnant again. On March 31, 2004, a family court judge in Monroe County (Rochester, NY) ruled in a child neglect proceeding that Stephanie P., the mother of Bobbijean P., was prohibited from getting pregnant unless and until she regained custody of all her children who were in the foster care system. Citing Stephanie’s alleged history of drug problems and her poverty, the Family Court stated that her right to have children was outweighed by society’s right not to have to support her children. Neither Stephanie nor the father of Bobbijean was present at the hearing, nor did either have an attorney present to represent their interests.

On Oct. 18, 2004, the NYCLU and the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), representing nine public health, child welfare and human rights advocacy organizations and a leading expert in drug treatment, filed an amicus brief in support of Stephanie P.’s motion to vacate the March 31 decision. The brief claims that the pregnancy prohibition violates a woman’s constitutional right to privacy and, specifically, her right to procreate under the United States and New York constitutions. The amicus further argue that the Court’s radical decision effectively creates a financial means test for procreation, as the judge cited the amount of public money spent to raise foster children as the basis for her decision. The brief also condemns the order as dangerous to the welfare of both women and children, and suggests that it would deflect attention from the need for meaningful family assistance services. Finally, the brief argued that the order violated Stephanie’s due process rights, as neither Stephanie nor a legal representative was present at the hearing to contest the procreation ban. O

n Jan. 10, 2005, Family Court judge Marilyn O’Connor denied Stephanie P.’s motion to vacate the March 31, 2004 decision, and attorneys for Stephanie P. filed a motion to appeal on Jan. 20, 2005. The RRP worked closely with Stephanie’s attorneys at the Monroe County Public Defenders Office in preparing the appeal. On July 18, 2007, the NYCLU and NAPW filed another amicus brief on behalf of over forty medical professionals, child welfare and public health organizations in the Appellate Division, Fourth Department. The brief, in support of Stephanie P., reiterated the claim from the first amicus brief that the lower court’s “no pregnancy order” set a dangerous precedent by allowing courts to intrude into individuals’ reproductive choices, and pointed out that that would be particularly dangerous for members of vulnerable groups like low income people and people of color who are already disproportionately subject to state intrusion in their families. The brief also argued that the lower Court’s decision relied on flawed evidence and infringed upon Stephanie P.’s right to reproductive choice and personal autonomy guaranteed by state, federal and international human rights law.

On Sept. 28, 2007, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department vacated the order prohibiting Stephanie P. from becoming pregnant. The court ruled that the family court judge lacked the authority to issue the order. The appeals court did not address the order’s constitutionality. 

Family Court, Monroe County, Docket No. NN-03626-03 (amicus) 

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