Rehearing: COA inaccurately characterized underlying proceedings in de facto custodian case

A Fort Wayne couple trying to secure de facto custody of a child they temporarily raised in their home did not persuade the Court of Appeals of Indiana on rehearing that it should change its mind in determining the child was best suited to live with her mother, not them.

Erica Leitch and Scott Geels took care of Desiree Morrow’s daughter “full time” in their home from January 2018 to October 2018 while Morrow’s furnace was broken. Morrow, who relied on Leitch for daycare services from November 2017 to January 2018, had asked if her daughter could live with the couple until she found a stable place to live or a different house to rent.

However, Morrow struggled to communicate with the couple in the following months about seeing her daughter. Law enforcement eventually got involved when the couple refused to return the child to Morrow at her request.

Once the child was released back to her mother’s care, only 10 days passed before Morrow returned her to the couple, who then kept the child until March 2019. Morrow retrieved her daughter from Leitch and Geels for the final time that month. The couple then filed a petition for guardianship.

The Allen Superior Court denied Leitch and Geels’ petition for guardianship and the COA affirmed, finding it would not be in the best interests of the child to live with the couple.

On a request for rehearing, Geels and Leitch argued that the COA incorrectly decided the matter on an issue they didn’t raise and failed to rule on the issue they actually presented.

Specifically, they pointed to the court’s use of the term “guardianship” to indicate the type of proceeding appealed, instead of acknowledging that it was, in fact, a “Verified Petition for [sic] to Establish De Facto Custodian Status and for Physical and Legal Custody of Minor Child by De Facto Custodians.”

“We grant rehearing to acknowledge that ‘guardianship’ was an inaccurate characterization of Appellants’ underlying proceedings, but we reaffirm the result we reached,” Judge Melissa May wrote for the appellate panel.

The Court of Appeals noted that while separate sections of the Indiana Code address guardianships and legal custody by a de facto custodians, both types of proceedings, when commenced with regard to a minor, require inquiry into the existence of de facto custodians as well as a determination of the child’s best interests.

“Because the appellate review standards for guardianship cases and de facto custodian cases are used interchangeably by this court and our Indiana Supreme Court, we are unpersuaded that our erroneous reference to their cause as a guardianship proceeding warrants a reexamination of the merits of their appeal,” May wrote.

“Ultimately, our decision rested on our affirmation of the trial court’s determination that Child’s best interests were served by remaining in the custody of her Mother,” she continued. “That determination prohibits a ruling in Appellants’ favor regardless of whether the proceeding was for guardianship or custody as de facto custodians.”

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

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