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Justices strip adoption, reinstate statute COA struck down

June 12, 2015

An adoptive maternal grandmother who the Court of Appeals ruled provided care in her grandchildren’s best interests despite a 1997 neglect conviction is legally barred from adopting them, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled. Justices also rebuked a COA determination that the statute was unconstitutional as applied.

“We now hold the statute constitutional, despite its harsh consequences under these facts, and remand to the trial court to reconsider the petitions in view of the absolute statutory bar,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote for the court in In the Matter of the Adoption of Minor Children: I.B. and W.B.: B.B. v. B.C. and J.L., and Indiana Department of Child Services, 82S05-1502-AD-63.

Adoptive maternal grandmother B.C. adopted two grandchildren including one with special needs who had been removed by the Department of Child Services due to parental substance abuse. The children’s mother supported placement with the maternal grandmother but the paternal grandmother also petitioned to adopt the children. The maternal grandmother’s prior neglect conviction had been for failing to report her ex-husband’s molestation of their child.

Indiana Code § 31-19-11-1(c) bars adoption for anyone convicted of felony neglect. The trial court ruled that conviction was not dispositive of her ability to care for children, and based on findings in the children’s best interests, Vanderburgh Superior Judge Brett Niemeier placed the children with her. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding the grandkids were entitled to an individualized determination of their best interests. DCS also agreed that the statute’s irrebuttable presumption of the maternal grandmother’s unfitness would be a violation of the children’s due process rights.

“We disagree with that analysis,” Rush wrote. “The United States Supreme Court has left its ‘irrebuttable presumption’ cases lying dormant for several decades. And under its more recent ‘classification’ analysis, the statute’s regrettable consequences under the facts of this case establish no as-applied constitutional violation.”

The court held the statute was constitutional because its prohibitions are rationally related to the classifications they draw, and there is no constitutional defect in barring adoptions by petitioners with felony neglect convictions.

The record also notes that the paternal grandmother failed to report her son’s domestic violence against the children’s mother – particularly an instance the paternal grandmother was aware of in 2012 when her son had beaten the children’s mother so severely she needed emergency medical care and could barely breathe.

“Distinguishing between convicted child-neglect felons and non-felons is rationally related to the legitimate legislative goal of ensuring that children will not be adopted into a neglectful home — and so the consequences of that distinction here, though regrettable, are not unconstitutional,” Rush wrote.

"We therefore reverse the trial court’s judgment on both adoption petitions and remand with instructions to vacate the adoption decree within thirty days of this Court’s opinion being certified and reconsider both adoptions to the extent they are not barred by the statute, including by considering whether a non-adoptive placement such as guardianship may be in the children’s best interests and by receiving additional evidence if the trial court so chooses."

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