Lassiter v. Department Of Social Services

452 U.S. 18 (1981)


Lassiter (D) was an uneducated woman who had children that were neglected. In the late spring of 1975, it was determined that D had not provided her infant son William with proper medical care, the District Court adjudicated him a neglected child and transferred him to the custody of Social Services. A year later, D was charged with first-degree murder, was convicted of second-degree murder, and began a sentence of 25 to 40 years of imprisonment. In 1978, the Department (P) petitioned the court to terminate D's parental rights. She was convicted of murder and sent to prison. The Department of Social Services instituted proceedings against her to terminate her parental rights. D had an attorney for her murder trial, but D never mentioned the forthcoming child termination hearing to him. D was brought from prison to the hearing, which was held August 31, 1978. The court concluded that she 'has had ample opportunity to seek and obtain counsel prior to the hearing of this matter, and [that] her failure to do so is without just cause,' the court did not postpone the proceedings. D did not aver that she was indigent, and the court did not appoint counsel for her. D represented herself quite ineptly. D testified that she wanted the child to be with her mother. D's mother was called as a witness and denied, under the questioning of the judge, that she had filed a complaint against D, and, on cross-examination, she denied both having failed to visit William when he was in the State's custody and having said that she could not care for him. D’s rights were terminated in the hearing. D lost parental rights over her son and appealed. D argued only that, because she was indigent, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment entitled her to the assistance of counsel, and that the trial court had therefore erred in not requiring the State to provide counsel for her. The court of appeals denied her claim and the Supreme Court of North Caroline affirmed.