COA upholds denial of guardianship petition filed by child’s de facto guardians

The Court of Appeals of Indiana has affirmed the denial of a couple’s petition for guardianship of a child for whom they served as de facto custodians, finding that guardianship was not in the child’s best interests.

After Desiree Morrow gave birth to her daughter in September 2016, she relied on Erica Leitch for day care services from November 2017 to January 2018. That month, the furnace in Morrow’s apartment broke, so she asked Leitch and her significant other, Scott Geels, if they would take care of her child “full time” until she found a stable place to live or a different house to rent.

In the ensuing months, Morrow attempted to communicate with Leitch and Geels but alleged she had trouble getting ahold of them to see her daughter. The child lived with them until October 2018, when Morrow demanded the child be returned to her care.

Law enforcement was called when Leitch and Geels refused, prompting an Indiana Department of Child Services investigation. DCS determined Morrow’s residence was appropriate, so the child was released back to her mother’s care.

But the child returned to Leitch and Geels after 10 days. She lived with them until March 2019. The couple also paid Morrow’s rent.

Morrow retrieved her daughter from the couple in March 2019, and Leitch and Geels saw the child for the last time during an April 2019 visit. They filed for guardianship that June.

After hearing evidence about what was later determined to be an unsubstantiated DCS investigation into Morrow and her boyfriend, the Allen Superior Court denied Leitch and Geels’ petition for guardianship.

The COA affirmed, finding it would not be in the best interests of the child to live with the couple, although they loved her as if she was their own.

“While Scott and Erica may have the financial means to give Child a ‘better’ life by some standards, their ability to so does not overshadow Mother’s natural and constitutional right to raise Child,” Judge Melissa May wrote.

“Mother has stable housing and Scott and Erica have not presented evidence that she is unable to care for Child. The trial court found there was no evidence that Mother suffered from any mental or physical illness and all DCS investigations into Mother’s parenting of Child have returned unsubstantiated. Child recognizes Mother as her mother and refers to her as such. Thus, the trial court’s findings support its conclusion that it is not in Child’s best interests for Scott and Erica to be her guardians,” May wrote.

The case is Scott Geels and Erica Leitch v. Desiree Morrow and Sean Riley, 21A-MI-960.

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