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Ruling: Child’s best interests, not simply merits of placement, should be considered
In a precedential family-law ruling Monday, the state Court of Appeals established guidelines for determining whether a relative should be permitted to intervene in a child’s adoption proceedings.
The unanimous opinion makes clear that courts should consider the best interests of the child with respect to the intervention and not only the ultimate merits of the adoption placement.
The case, In the Matter of the Welfare of the Children of M.L.S., C.V.R and P.H., involved an aunt who sought to intervene in a 6-year-old’s adoption proceedings. The Court of Appeals found that she should have been allowed to do so.
The trial court judge abused his discretion by denying the motion to intervene based on an erroneous analysis of the child’s best interests in intervention, the court said in an opinion written by Judge Diane Bratvold.
Her ruling reverses and remands the case, with instructions to allow the aunt to intervene in the adoption, while also commending the court for its efforts to ensure that best interests of the child, identified as “X,” are met.
The court went on to emphasize that it was not deciding whether the aunt should seek adoptive placement or how the court should rule if she did so.
Five foster homes
X was born in 2014 and lived in five different foster-family placements before she was placed with her current family in October 2019. The biological parents’ rights were terminated in June 2020.
In April 2020, Olmsted County filed a placement plan identifying a family option. But the District Court didn’t refer to this plan when the parents’ rights were terminated and it relieved the county of any further relative-search efforts.
In September 2020, the county advised the District Court that X’s aunt had come forward, but the county felt that moving the child would be detrimental. It was also concerned about the aunt’s relationship with her brother, X’s father, who is a convicted sex offender. The county also reported that X was going to be adopted by her foster family.
The aunt requested reconsideration of the adoption in a letter that the county filed with the court. The aunt requested a visit with X, but the county did not respond.
The aunt had no contact with the county between April and July 2020. In October, the county requested that the aunt be “ruled out” as a permanency option because X should stay with her foster family. In November, the aunt moved for permissive intervention.
The District Court ruled that the foster family should be the permanency option. It later denied the aunt’s motion to intervene, citing X’s history of severe abuse and neglect, and her attachment to the foster family.
The aunt appealed. The issues on appeal were whether the court abused its discretion, by denying permissive intervention and by ruling the aunt out as a placement option.
The state’s child protection laws, Minn. Stat. § 260.001 et. seq., direct an individualized determination of the needs of the child and how the selected placement will serve those needs. The law also says that placement efforts should prioritize relatives of the child.
Under that statute, the county has a duty to conduct a comprehensive search for relatives and has the continuing responsibility to appropriately involve relatives, even if the court has already found that the county has made reasonable efforts. It also has a duty to report its relative-search findings to the court.
Any person may be permitted to intervene as a party if the court finds that is in the child’s best interests (Minn. R. Juv. Prot. P. 34.02). A “ruled-out” relative thus may regain party status.
Best interests of the child
The Court of Appeals turned to the aunt’s argument that the judge misapplied the law by focusing on whether permanent placement with the aunt was in X’s best interests, rather than whether the aunt’s participation in the adoption proceeding was in her best interests.
It analyzed the argument with the “general view” that permissive intervention should be granted liberally when in the child’s best interests. It also said that under the Rule 34.02’s best-interests tests, the court should consider whether the movant is a relative.
However, the court stepped away from using the child protection statute’s best-interest factors (Minn. Stat. § 260C.212, subd. 2(b)), when considering a permissive-intervention motion. The connection between the rule and the statutory factors is unclear and the statute focuses on placement of the child, not participation in the proceedings, the court said.
(But discussion of the statutory factors included reference to 260C.212’s subdivision 2(b)(6), which would include the child’s religious and cultural needs. The Court of Appeals ruling notes in a footnote that the aunt argued the District Court did not analyze X’s religious and cultural needs as a Black child. As Bratvold writes, “While not explicitly stated in the record, it can be inferred that the foster parents are of a different race.” The District Court did consider factor 2(b)(6), but decided that any benefit of placement with the aunt was outweighed by the disruption of moving the child. The Court of Appeals did not address this challenge, because it remanded the case on other grounds.)
Continuing, the court said that a person moving for intervention may be at an unfair disadvantage in providing information about the statutory factors, noting that the “aunt made repeated requests to visit X but was not allowed to do so.”
The District Court should be careful to evaluate the best interests of the child with respect to the motion to intervene, the Court of Appeals said.
Disruption of care
The District Court also considered another statutory factor—disruption of X’s care—but questioned the timeliness of the aunt’s motion and her early equivocation about adopting the girl.
The Court of Appeals said that the District Court did not tie its concerns about disruption in X’s care to her best interests in the motion to intervene. Emphasis on this factor placed the aunt at a disadvantage, the court found, since she was not allowed to see X.
The court was troubled by the District Court’s implicit determination that the aunt’s motion was untimely, because the judge did not appear to know all the details about the aunt’s contacts with the county.
“We are genuinely disturbed by what this record suggests was the county’s apparent failure to communicate with the District Court about the county’s ongoing contacts with aunt and her interests in adopting X.”
The District Court also denied the aunt’s motion to intervene on the grounds that she equivocated about adopting X, and compared that to the girl’s attachment to the foster family. But the Court of Appeals found that conclusion unsupported by the record.
The Court of Appeals questioned whether the District Court explicitly ruled out the aunt as a placement option, but said that if it did, it abused its discretion.
At this point in the ruling, the Court of Appeals recognized the difficult options presented to the District Court:
“We sincerely commend the District Court for its ongoing efforts to ensure the best interests of X are met. We are troubled that the District Court appears to have lacked access to information about aunt’s contacts with the county. We also recognize that, given the horrific abuse suffered by X, the District Court and the county were striving to find the best permanent-placement option for X, and that her current foster family has provided X with a safe and loving home.”
But, it continued, the District Court must follow the express direction of the legislature by first considering placement with a relative. Under the record, Bratvold writes:
“We cannot conclude that the county considered aunt before considering X’s current foster family as a permanent-placement option.”
Bratvold was joined in the decision by judges Carol Hooten and Francis J. Connolly.