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Nicholson v. Williams (Defending parental rights of mothers who are domestic violence victims)

This case involves the parental rights of mothers who are victims of domestic violence. In 1999, Sharwline Nicholson was a single mother of two young children, Kendell Coles and Claude Barnett. Ms. Nicholson was still involved with the father of her infant daughter, Claude Barnett, but Mr. Barnett lived in South Carolina and made monthly visits up to Brooklyn to see them. On Jan. 27, 1999, during one of Mr. Barnett’s visits, Ms. Nicholson ended the relationship. Mr. Barnett, who had never previously threatened or assaulted Ms. Nicholson, punched her, kicked her and threw objects at her. With her head bleeding profusely from the attack, Ms. Nicholson called 911. She also made arrangements for a neighbor to care for her children while she was in the hospital. Upon learning she would stay at the hospital overnight, she gave officers the names of relatives who could care for the children in her absence. The next day, an Administration of Children’s Services (ACS) worker called Ms. Nicholson at the hospital and informed her that the agency had taken custody of her children the night before. ACS claimed that the children were in “imminent risk if they remained in the care of Ms. Nicholson because she was not, at that time, able to protect herself nor her children because Mr. Barnett had viciously beaten her.” ACS also filed charges of neglect against Ms. Nicholson for “engage[ing] in acts of domestic violence” in the presence of their child.

On Feb. 4, 1999, Family Court ordered that Ms. Nicholson’s children be returned to her, but Ms. Nicholson continued to be listed on the state’s records as a neglectful parent. Ms. Nicholson and others filed a class action suit against ACS claiming, among other things, a deprivation of Fourteenth Amendment rights of procedural and substantive due process protecting familial and parental relationships. On March 1, 2001, the District Court granted the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction, from which the defendants appealed. The Second Circuit certified to the New York State Court of Appeals the question of how to interpret the Family Court Act’s definition of neglect.

On May 3, 2004, the NYCLU joined in an amicus brief, filed at the Court of Appeals, in support of the District Court’s decision. The brief highlighted the significant gender bias that continues to persist in court and agency decisions which blame battered mothers for any and all harm their children suffer. The brief further argued that the “failure to exercise a minimum degree of care” standard of the Family Court Act should be interpreted to require a detailed, particularized showing of facts that properly assesses the non-abusive parent’s individual responsibility for any harm to her children. Amici claimed that requiring a case-specific explanation regarding the accountability of the non-offending parent is essential to protect adequately a non-offending parent’s due process rights, and that to remove a child from Ms. Nicholson’s care on the mere presumption of responsibility violates those rights.

On Oct. 26, 2004, the New York Court of Appeals unanimously held that a mother’s inability to protect a child from witnessing abuse does not constitute neglect, and therefore cannot be the sole basis for removal. Furthermore, the Court held that any decision to remove a child must be weighed against the psychological harm to the child that could be created by the removal itself, and that only in the rarest of instances should this decision be made without judicial approval. On Nov. 29, 2004, the Second Circuit issued a decree in Nicholson v. Williams under the terms set forth in the New York Court of Appeals decision. 

U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Cir., No. 2, 171 (amicus). 

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