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Judges win final say on placements of unfit parents’ children

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, July 11, 2014, at 12:08 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, July 11, 2014, at 8:18 p.m.

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In a major ruling Friday, the state Supreme Court decided that local district judges will have final say on who gets the children after parents are judged unfit.

The 6-1 ruling eliminates appeals of the decision when the biological parents’ rights have been terminated and more than one party is seeking to adopt the child.

“Otherwise it is easy to see how these cases could turn into back-and-forth campaigns of endless litigation and appeals by persons other than the child’s parents,” said the majority opinion, delivered by Justice Dan Biles.

Two Wichita-area lawmakers said they think its wrong that parties who lose an adoption fight in family court can’t appeal the decision and said they’ll try to change that when the Legislature returns to session in January.

“I’m already working on three pieces of legislation – this may need to be another one,” said state Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita. “The majority of my colleagues talk a lot on the Senate floor about keeping families together.”

Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita and a member of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, said he would also support legislation to allow appeals.

“I believe it’s in every child’s best interest to be with their parents or a family member,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s constitutional to not have any sort of appeal process. It’s wrong.”

The Supreme Court was clear in its ruling that it sees access to the appellate courts as a legislative issue, not a constitutional matter. “The right to appeal is entirely statutory,” the opinion said.

The state law regulating appeals specified several types of family court decisions that can be appealed. But that list doesn’t include decisions on adoptions after parents’ rights are terminated, the court opinion said.

Justice Lee Johnson filed a dissenting opinion, saying his reading of the law would allow for appeals to be filed.

“I agree with the majority that quickly attaining stability in a child’s placement is important,” he wrote. “But it is also important that the child have the best possible placement or at least have the means to protect against a detrimental placement. I just hope the majority’s decision to cut off all post-termination appeals does not do more harm than good.”

State Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, an attorney who has practiced family law, said state statutes give preference for adoption to family members, but there’s a multi-part test to determine the best interest of the child.

With family placement, there’s the benefit of family history and connections, he said.

But foster parents have a record of caring for and bonding with the child and are known to the social workers who make recommendations to the court.

“It’s a complicated area and there’s really not a great answer to it,” he said.

Friday’s Supreme Court decision stems from a Sedgwick County case in which the judge granted adoption rights to foster parents of a girl identified in court records as N.A.C.

According to the court record, N.A.C. was born prematurely on a Wichita street in November of 2011 and tested positive for cocaine when she was taken to the hospital.

The mother initally tried to take the baby out of the hospital against medical advice, but ultimately left without her and never came back when police placed the child in protective custody.

The baby was later placed with foster parents.

After the biological mother’s parental rights were terminated in 2012, both the foster parents and biological relatives, cousins of the girl’s mother, sought to adopt the child.

District Court Judge Daniel Brooks ruled in favor of the foster parents, but the Court of Appeals overturned his decision and nullified the adoption.

Friday’s Supreme Court ruling overturned the Appeals Court decision, restoring Brooks’ decision in favor of the foster parents.

The Supreme Court ruled that state law does not give the appeals court jurisdiction to consider adoption cases after parental rights are terminated, meaning the local District Court has the final word.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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