Due to COVID-19, the Massachusetts court system has relied heavily on online video conferencing platforms, like Zoom. A recent decision by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), Adoption of Patty (decided May 9, 2022), overturned a trial court’s termination of a mother’s parental rights over Zoom for violating the mother’s due process rights. This case shows that trial courts must ensure adequate safeguards to protect due process when utilizing video conferencing.
The judicial termination of parental rights is significant, as it represents the irreversible severing of the parent-child relationship. The bench trial at issue commenced on September 9, 2020. The SJC highlighted that the two-day virtual bench trial “was plagued by technological issues and inadequate safeguards.” On day one of the trial, the self-represented mother, who requested (but was denied) an in-person trial, joined the virtual hearing by cellphone but became disconnected during the ensuing witness testimony and missed most of the Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) evidence against her. Despite the mother’s absence, the trial judge allowed the matter to proceed. On the second day of trial, the trial judge invited the mother to cross-examine witnesses from the previous day, even though she had not heard their full testimonies. The mother complained about wanting a “fair trial.” The trial judge ultimately ruled in favor of terminating the mother’s rights.
In its decision, the SJC held that if adequate safeguards are employed, conducting a trial over a video conferencing platform (like Zoom) to determine whether parental rights ought to be terminated does not per se violate the parent’s due process rights, regardless of whether a parent requests an in-person trial. However, in this case, the SJC found that the mother’s due process rights were violated because the trial court failed to guarantee adequate safeguards. The SJC found the trial judge failed to determine what technology the mother had available to her that would allow her to connect by video and, if she did not have any, whether it was possible to assist her in obtaining access to such technology. The trial judge also failed to consider that as a telephone participant, the mother lacked the ability to view the documents being used as evidence against her during the trial. The SJC also noted that the trial judge could have utilized a breakout room to allow the mother a chance to chat with the court’s standby counsel. Further, because she was absent for most of the witness testimonies from day one of the trial, the mother was not prepared to cross-examine the witnesses. Due to these inadequate safeguards, the SJC vacated the termination of the mother’s parental rights and remanded the matter for a new trial.