The Court of Appeals Remands for a New Consent Hearing, Noting Trial Court Erred by Denying Mother’s Due Process Rights.

Family Law Case Review

Case: SR v. MJ
by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham Greenebaum Doll

HELD: Trial court erred by denying Mother her due process rights when, at the beginning of a hearing to determine whether Mother’s consent was required for an adoption of her child, the trial court did not afford Mother with her right to counsel, or to ensure that Mother was knowingly and voluntarily waiving same.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY:
Mother and Father had Child together in 2009. Paternity was established, and orders were issued for custody, parenting time, and child support. Father was awarded custody. Mother apparently had a problematic relationship with alcohol that resulted in legal and other problems. There was some dispute about the amount of contact Mother had with Child thereafter.

In 2013, Father remarried Stepmother, who became the primary caretaker of Child. Stepmother later filed a petition to adopt Child, reciting that Mother’s consent was unnecessary due to Mother’s abandonment and failure to support. When Mother received notice of the adoption proceeding, she filed a pro se objection.

In 2015, the adoption court held a consent hearing. At the outset, Mother requested counsel. After inquiring as to Mother’s financial condition, the adoption court determined that Mother, who made $10/hr at one job and $7.50/hr at another, had sufficient income to pay for an attorney and therefore Mother had made a “voluntary choice” to proceed without counsel. The hearing proceeded. Stepmother presented her case, including testimony from Stepmother and Father. Mother made no cross-examination.

At some point during Mother’s case-in-chief and testimony, Stepmother expressed an objection that the trial court, from Stepmother’s perspective, was asking questions and participating in the hearing as though advocating for Mother. As a result, the court continued the hearing and appointed counsel for Mother.

The adoption court began the next hearing, at which Mother appeared with appointed counsel, by announcing that this was not a “new hearing,” but would pick up where the earlier hearing left off. Mother offered more of her own testimony.

After the hearing, the adoption court concluded that Mother’s consent was not necessary for the adoption, citing Mother’s insufficient contact with Child. The court later granted Stepmother’s adoption as in the best interests of Child. Mother appealed.

The Court of Appeals noted that a parent whose parental rights are subject to termination in an adoption proceeding has three rights: (1) the right to be represented by counsel; (2) the right to have counsel provided if the parent cannot afford counsel; and (3) the right to be informed of the first two rights.

The Court of Appeals disagreed that Mother had voluntarily proceeded without counsel, as she requested counsel as soon as she learned that court-appointed counsel was a possibility. And, despite finding Mother was able to afford counsel, the trial court did not afford Mother an opportunity to acquire counsel or encourage her to do so. The adoption order was reversed and remanded for a new consent hearing, for which Mother should have counsel for its entirety, absent a knowing and voluntarily waiver by Mother of that right.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: SR v. MJ

 

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James A. Reed and Michael R. Kohlhaas of Bingham Greenebaum Doll represent clients in a wide spectrum of relationship transition and wealth planning matters, including premarital agreements, estate planning, cohabitation, separation, divorce (especially involving high net worth individuals and/or complex asset issues), custody, parenting arrangements, adoption, and domestic partnerships. Bingham Greenebaum Doll, a multidisciplinary law firm serving regional, national, and international clients, is the fourth-largest law firm in Indiana. The firm’s main practices include corporate, property, litigation, labor, government law, and personal services law. Visit the firm’s website at www.bgdlegal.com.

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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