PEABODY — The state’s highest court ruled Tuesday that parents whose children are being placed under the guardianship of another person, including relatives, are entitled to a lawyer. 

It’s a case that started with a young Peabody woman who, her lawyer said, was “bullied” into signing an agreement giving guardianship to her maternal grandmother. That grandmother then refused to let the teenager see her child. 

And it was an issue that a number of advocacy groups have been hoping the Supreme Judicial Court would address: a guardianship system that often overlooked the rights of more vulnerable parents, such as the then-homeless Peabody teen. 

The SJC found that just as when the state Department of Children and Families is involved in a guardianship case, parents who reach private agreements to give guardianship to another are entitled to advice and representation from a lawyer. 

”While it is true that the parent’s underlying parental rights are not forever terminated as a result of the guardianship, they are severely circumscribed, becoming subsidiary to those of the guardian, for as long as the guardianship remains in effect,” the SJC found, in a decision written by Justice Francis Spina.

A guardianship has such a significant effect on a parent-child relationship, and on the parent’s rights, that when a parent cannot afford a lawyer, one should be appointed, wrote Spina. 

Spina noted that lawyers are appointed in other types of proceedings involving parents and children. Those include cases where the state seeks to terminate parental rights, or where a child needs special assistance from the court. 

Patrice Gianareles was still just 17 when she gave birth to her son, Vinny, in 2011, according to court records. 

Her grandmother, Patricia Zegarowski, who had raised Gianareles, sought guardianship of the child. Zegarowski and her attorney first obtained a temporary guardianship of the boy, then sought to make it permanent. 

When the case was about to go to trial, Zegarowski presented Gianareles, who had turned 18, with an agreement for permanent guardianship of Vinny. The teen, who was homeless at the time, signed. 

The agreement stripped the teen of any role in the upbringing of the child. She was barred from contact with her son, but not necessarily from proving financial support. 

Six months later, Gianareles tried to get the order rescinded and her grandmother removed as guardian. 

Ultimately, she won, following a trial last summer in Salem Probate and Family court. A judge found the teen to be a fit parent for Vinny, said her lawyer, Glenna Goldis of Merrimack Valley Legal Services. 

But in the meantime, the issue of whether she should have had an attorney was still out there. 

“She didn’t realize it would be a test case,” said Goldis of her client, who, she said, simply felt that what had happened to her was unfair. 

The situation also caught the attention of other lawyers, including the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which provides lawyers for those who cannot afford them in other types of parental rights cases, and a number of legal services groups, who assist people in civil cases. They submitted a friend of the court brief, as did the Massachusetts Bar Association and Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. 

“A guardianship decree does not terminate the parent’s rights, but it divests the parent of all day-to-day decision-making authority, the right to access school and medical records, and the right to make extraordinary medical decisions for the child,” CPCS attorney Andrew Cohen wrote.

Because such important parental rights are at stake, Cohen argued, and because parents and children have no meaningful chance to be heard without counsel — the issues are so complex — courts should appoint attorneys to represent their interests in such cases. 

That already happens when DCF becomes involved in a guardianship or termination of parental rights case. 

CPCS and other advocates say that DCF caseworkers are often behind such “private” guardianship agreements, encouraging the arrangements rather than stepping into a situation themselves. 

Goldis said Gianareles and her son now live with her paternal grandparents. Zegarowski still gets to see the boy through visitation. 

Zegarowski’s lawyer did not return a call seeking comment on the ruling. 

“This was a hard case,” said Goldis, “but she hung in there, and she’s a teenager.” 

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.

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