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Grandparents lose adoption appeal in first-impression case

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Grandparents who filed late motions challenging a stepfather’s adoption of a 6-year-old are not entitled to relief based on their argument they didn’t receive legal notice, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday in a family law case raising two issues of first impression.

The grandparents had been almost sole caregivers for B.C.H. from the time she was a newborn until she was about 27 months old, according to the record, during which time B.C.H’s teenage mother visited about once a week.

In 2010, mother married the father of her second child, and the couple adopted B.C.H. Grandparents didn’t receive legal notice of the adoption or consent, but they were aware stepfather had filed the adoption petition, which was granted in August 2011. But the grandparents continue to seek custody in ongoing proceedings.

In In the Matter of the Adoption of B.C.H., a Minor, 41A04-1308-AD-388, the Court of Appeals panel affirmed trial court orders denying the grandparents’ motions for relief from judgment and motions to correct error that aimed to set aside the trial court’s adoption decree.

Judge Rudy R. Pyle III noted the issues of first impression in this case: “(1) whether the phrase 'lawful custody' is equivalent to the phrase 'legal custody' for purposes of Indiana Code § 31-19-9-1, such that a lawful custodian must be court ordered; and (2) whether Grandparents qualified as lawful custodians by meeting the statutory qualifications for being de facto custodians.”

"In light of ... common law history of disfavoring the right of any party other than a child’s parents to object to an adoption, we hold that the adoption statute’s use of the phrase “lawful custody” under Ind. Code § 31-19-9-1(a)(3) is equivalent to “legal custody,” that is, court-ordered custody. Absent clear language from the Legislature, it is not our place to create a right where it has never before existed.

"Likewise ... we also will not create a right for parties without legal custody of a child to receive notice of adoption proceedings," Pyle wrote in an opinion joined by Judge Cale Bradford, holding that the grandparents do not qualify as legal guardians or lawful custodians.

Judge Paul Mathias in a separate opinion wrote that he would have required stepfather to obtain grandparents’ consent for the adoption, but because grandparents had actual notice of the proceedings and didn’t attempt to contest the adoption, he concurs with the majority.

Mathias disagrees with the majority’s equivalence of the statutory terms “lawful custody” and “legal custody.”

“Mother voluntarily relinquished custody of B.C.H. to Grandparents shortly after the child was born. Because Grandparents were B.C.H.’s primary caregivers, lived with and financially supported her, the Johnson Juvenile Court determined that Grandparents qualified as B.C.H.’s de facto custodians. Under these circumstances, and under the plain meaning of the term “lawful,” I would conclude that Grandparents had “lawful” custody of B.C.H., and therefore, notice of Stepfather’s adoption petition and Grandparent’s consent to B.C.H.’s adoption was required," Mathias wrote.

That said, circumstances here didn’t warrant such determinations, Mathias concluded.

"Although Grandparents’ consent to the adoption was not sought, Grandparents had actual notice that Stepfather had initiated adoption proceedings. But Grandparents failed to intervene in or to contest the adoption proceedings; therefore, I would hold that Grandparents cannot challenge the decree of adoption at this late date. For this reason, I concur in the result reached by the majority."

 
 



 

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