Court erred in denying mother visitation with child under guardianship

A Madison County court wrongly refused to hear a mother’s petition for visitation with her child who is subject to a guardianship, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

Erica Manis appealed trial court rulings denying her petitions to terminate Trista McNabb’s guardianship of her child, J.F., and seeking visitation with the child born in 2012. Manis was convicted of drug charges during the pendency of the guardianship, and her petitions were denied in May 2017.

The appeals panel affirmed the Madison Circuit Court’s judgment denying the petition to terminate the guardianship, but overturned the ruling regarding parenting time, in which the trial court stated there was no statutory authority for ordering parental visitation during a guardianship proceeding.

Judge John Baker wrote for the panel that reversed that conclusion, deciding a matter of first impression in Erica Manis v. Trista McNabb, 18A-GU-96.

“While no statute explicitly grants trial courts this authority in guardianship proceedings, no statute precludes it, either,” the court held. “And because our General Assembly has clearly intended for noncustodial parents to have parenting time unless it would endanger or impair the physical or mental health of the child, we find that a trial court has the authority to determine and order parenting time for a parent whose child is placed with a guardian.”

The 14th Amendment ensures the rights of parents to raise their children, the court continued, and the Indiana Supreme Court has likewise ruled that parents have visitation rights to their children with noncustodial parents.

“Accordingly, we hold that a trial court has the authority to determine whether parenting time is warranted and order reasonable parenting time for a parent whose child is placed with a guardian,” Baker wrote. “In so doing, a trial court must balance a parent’s right to visit his or her child with the best interests of the child. And in ordering parenting time in these cases, it would be best practice for a trial court ‘to make specific findings to support its parenting time order.’”

The trial court’ ruling also was in error because it deferred to the guardian’s judgment about whether to grant mother parenting time, the appellate panel found.

“We simply do not understand why the trial court would defer to Guardian, a person with a subjective perspective and invested stake in the matter, about Mother’s constitutionally-protected right to see her son. Guardian, having disregarded Mother’s position as Child’s mother and Mother’s wishes to see Child, had already prevented Mother from seeing Child for well over a year for a reason that the trial court concluded was unfounded. And still the trial court left future parenting time to Guardian’s discretion, thereby potentially further depriving Mother and Child of time together and an opportunity to develop a meaningful relationship and bond.

“We cannot state strongly enough that a trial court should not allow a third party alone to determine a parent’s parenting time with his or her child during guardianship proceedings. If parties cannot agree on their own to a plan that is in the best interests of the child, then the trial court must take an active role in developing one,” Baker wrote.

The matter was remanded for further proceedings.

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