Trial court correctly denied grandmother’s motion to intervene in adoption, COA affirms

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A Harrison County woman seeking custody of her grandchild failed to convince the Court of Appeals of Indiana that her motion to intervene in a foster parent adoption should’ve been granted.

B.M. and K.E. are the biological parents of A.E. A day after A.E. was born in April 2015, the Harrison County Department of Child Services received a report that the child and her siblings were victims of neglect because the mother tested positive for drugs throughout her pregnancy and because the child’s urine tested positive for opiates at birth.

A.E. was removed from the care of her mother and father in January 2016 under a dispositional decree. C.L.F., who resides in Harrison County and is A.E.’s grandmother, took care of the child and her older half-sister, K.F., off and on after removal.

In January 2020, A.E. and K.F. were placed in foster care with C.M. and M.B. in Jackson County. K.F. was soon removed from the foster home and placed with C.L.F. because of her dangerous behavior.

C.L.F. filed a petition in Harrison Circuit Court to adopt her two grandchildren in February 2020. Five months later, the adoptive parents filed a petition in Hamilton Superior Court to adopt A.E., stipulating that while they were residents of Jackson County and the child was a ward of the Harrison County DCS, they were consenting to the venue and jurisdiction of the Hamilton Superior Court.

The adoptive parents stated that Harrison County DCS would be providing its consent to the adoption and that petitions to terminate B.M. and K.E’s parental rights were pending in Harrison County. The parental rights of B.M. and K.E. were terminated in January 2021.

The Hamilton Superior Court conducted a hearing on the adoptive parents’ petition to adopt and, on the same day, issued a decree finding that adoption was in the best interests of the child.

C.L.F. filed a motion to intervene and a motion to correct error in the Hamilton Superior Court in November 2021.

In the motion to intervene, the grandmother argued that “having filed her prior adoption petition” for A.E. in another court of competent jurisdiction, she had a “claim or defense and a question of law in common” with the adoption action in the Hamilton Superior Court and should be permitted to intervene. In the motion to correct error, she claimed the adoption decree was an abuse of discretion, the trial court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case and was not a proper venue to conduct the adoption proceedings, and the adoption was not in the best interests of A.E.

The trial court denied the grandmother’s motions and she appealed. The adoptive parents filed a motion to dismiss the appeal, arguing that the order denying C.L.F.’s motion to intervene was a non-appealable interlocutory order.

At the COA, the panel determined it had jurisdiction over the case. Then on the merits, it ruled that the trial court didn’t err in denying the grandmother’s motions.

Addressing the issue of jurisdiction first, the appellate judges opined that the adoptive parents misunderstood Indiana Trial Rule 24(C).

“Trial Rule 24(C) does not otherwise change appellate practice or jurisdiction,” Judge Derek Molter wrote. “It remains the case that non-appealable interlocutory rulings merge into the final judgment and are subject to appellate review through an appeal from the final judgment.

“… Here, the trial court entered the Decree of Adoption on October 27, 2021, and then on November 15, 2021, Grandmother filed both a motion to intervene and a motion to correct error, as Trial Rule 24(C) expressly permitted,” Molter wrote. “Because the trial court denied both motions on December 10, 2021, Grandmother’s deadline to appeal the final judgment was January 10, 2022. She filed her Notice of Appeal on December 12, 2021, so her appeal was timely.”

As for the denial of C.L.F.’s motion to intervene, the COA found “several” reasons why it wasn’t an abuse of discretion.

“First, the Harrison Circuit Court terminated the parental rights of Mother and Father before the Hamilton Superior Court issued the Decree of Adoption. So, Grandmother lacked standing to intervene in the adoption proceedings when she filed her motion to intervene,” Molter wrote. “… Second, Grandmother filed her motion to intervene after the trial court had already issued its adoption decree granting the adoption of Child to Adoptive Parents. Although Trial Rule 24(C) allows intervention for purposes of filing a motion to correct error or for relief from judgment, a petition to intervene after a judgment is disfavored.

“… Finally,” Molter concluded, “noncustodial grandparents are not entitled to intervene in adoption proceedings.”

In a footnote, the panel noted that C.L.F. dedicated most of her argument section to challenging the jurisdiction and venue of the trial court to grant the adoption. But because the COA found the trial court properly denied her motion to intervene, it did not reach the merits of those arguments.

The case is In the Matter of the Adoption of A.E., C.L.F. v. C.M. and M.B., 21A-AD-2766.

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