People in Interest of J.G., 2021 COA 47

While this is a Court of Appeals decision, the Supreme Court also denied a petition for certiorari (21SC312, People in Interest of A.M.).

In this case, the Court of Appeals considers arguments concerning a grandmother’s standing to seek APR, whether the mother was entitled to a Troxel presumption of fitness, and whether it is unconstitutional to grant sole parental responsibilities to a nonparent over a fit parent’s objection.

The Court of Appeals first holds that grandmother did have standing to seek an order allocating parental responsibilities (APR) and that Children’s Code provisions rather than Uniform Dissolution of Marriage Act (UMDA) provisions govern this analysis. Second, the Court of Appeals holds that further findings were required under Troxel. While an order adjudicating a child dependent and neglected overcomes the Troxel presumption of fitness, the presumption can be restored. In this case, in ruling on the APR request, the trial court adopted a previous order expressly stating that the mother had complied with her treatment plan and was a fit parent; the trial court also concluded that all child protection issues had been fully addressed and that there was no longer a need for department involvement. The Court of Appeals concludes that under these circumstances, the mother was entitled to the Troxel presumption and remands the case for findings consistent with Troxel. The Court of Appeals clarifies that the clear and convincing burden of proof applies to this determination, distinguishing cases applying preponderance of the evidence after parents chose to formally transfer significant legal authority to another person. While the trial court articulated many reasons for its decision to award primary parenting time and sole decision making to a non-parent and the record supports those findings, the trial court did not expressly apply Troxel’s presumption of fitness, determine whether the presumption had been overcome by clear and convincing evidence, or explain how special factors justified interfering with mother’s determination of what served her child’s best interests.

Finally, the Court of Appeals rejects mother’s argument that granting sole decision-making authority to a non-parent over a fit parent’s objection infringes on the parent’s constitutional rights, noting that applying the Troxel presumption to the determination adequately protects the parent’s rights.

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