Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Family Law
Tuluksak Native Community v. Dept. of Health & Soc. Srvs.
removed an Alaska Native child from his mother and placed him with a relative, the child experienced suicidal ideation and checked himself into a psychiatric facility. Following a period of seemingly voluntary care, OCS requested a hearing to place the child at an out-of-state secure residential psychiatric treatment facility. The child’s Tribe intervened and challenged the constitutionality of AS 47.10.087, the manner in which evidence was received, and alleged due process violations. The child joined in some of these objections. The superior court ordered the child placed at a secure residential psychiatric treatment facility per AS 47.10.087. The Tribe, but not the child, appealed the placement decision, contending primarily that the superior court erred in proceeding under AS 47.10.087 and in making its substantive findings, and plainly erred in authorizing placement pursuant to AS 47.10.087 without addressing the Indian Child Welfare Act’s (ICWA) placement preferences. The Alaska Supreme Court found no error in the court’s application of AS 47.10.087 or its substantive findings, and thus affirmed the superior court’s placement determination. The Court expressed concern that the trial court failed to make required inquiries and findings related to ICWA’s placement preferences. However, this did not amount to plain error. The Supreme Court did not reach the Tribe’s other arguments as the Tribe has either waived them or lacked standing to raise them. View "Tuluksak Native Community v. Dept. of Health & Soc. Srvs." on Justia Law
M.T. (Mother) v. State of Alaska DHSS, OCS
Mother Miranda T. appealed the superior court’s entry of a disposition order in child in need of aid (CINA) proceedings. She contended the court erred by moving forward with an adjudication hearing without having considered her request for a review hearing on a previously stipulated temporary custody and placement arrangement. She contended the court also erred by later refusing to enforce two subsequent agreements she had reached with the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) about placements for her daughter. Furthermore, Mother contended the evidence did not support the disposition order’s predicate findings that (1) OCS had made sufficiently active efforts to reunify the family and (2) removal of the daughter from the family home was necessary to avoid harm to her. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court rejected the mother’s claims of error and affirmed the superior court’s disposition order. View "M.T. (Mother) v. State of Alaska DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law
Christy v. Conrad
In this case, the superior court granted visitation to grandparents after finding that the children enjoyed a positive relationship “typical of a grandparent-child relationship” and that the parents’ motive for cutting off contact with the grandparents was spiteful. To this, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the court’s ruling, finding the parents’ motive for ending visitation did not show that the lack of visitation was detrimental to the children. "And the mere fact that children enjoy a positive or typical relationship with their grandparents does not amount to clear and convincing evidence that ending visitation is detrimental to the children. Absent such evidence, it is error to order visitation that a fit parent does not wish to allow." View "Christy v. Conrad" on Justia Law
Blythe P. v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS
Blythe and Danny were the parents of three-year-old Gene. Blythe had two other children, Gene’s half siblings, with a man named Timothy. Timothy has custody of those other children; they lived with him and his parents, Robert and Vivian. In January 2021, the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) filed a non-emergency petition to adjudicate Gene a child in need of aid due to concerns about Blythe’s and Danny’s mental health and substance abuse. Later that month OCS removed Gene from his parents and placed him with Robert and Vivian. Robert and Vivian considered themselves Gene’s grandparents, though they were not related to him by blood or marriage. When OCS decides to transfer a child in its custody from one out-of-home placement to another, a party may seek judicial review of that decision. According to statute, the superior court shall deny the proposed transfer if the party “prove[s] by clear and convincing evidence that the transfer would be contrary to the best interests of the child.” OCS argued that in some circumstances the party challenging a proposed transfer must also show it was an abuse of discretion, such as when OCS seeks to transfer the child to a statutorily preferred placement or due to licensing concerns with the existing placement. Because there was no basis in statutory text or legislative history to supplant the standard of review chosen by the legislature with a standard more deferential to OCS, the Alaska Supreme Court declined to do so. And because the Court mistakenly applied abuse of discretion review in State, Department of Health & Social Services, Office of Children’s Services v. Zander B., 474 P.3d 1153 (Alaska 2020), it overruled that decision to the extent it was inconsistent with the opinion here. View "Blythe P. v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law
Penn P. Jr. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Soc.Srvs
The Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took custody of a newborn child due to concerns about the parents’ drug use and the father’s history of sexual abuse. The mother later voluntarily relinquished her parental rights, and after a trial, the superior court terminated the father’s rights. The father appealed the termination order, arguing: (1) the order improperly relied on drug-treatment records that were not admitted at trial; and (2) in proposing a new process to govern a parent’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, he established a prima facie case of ineffective assistance and the Alaska Supreme Court should remand the case to the superior court for an evidentiary hearing. The Supreme Court was not convinced by either argument, and affirmed the termination order because relying on the unadmitted drug-treatment records was harmless error and because the father did not show he received ineffective assistance of counsel. However, the Court took the opportunity to clarify its approach to ineffective assistance claims in child in need of aid (CINA) cases. View "Penn P. Jr. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Soc.Srvs" on Justia Law
Reed S. v. Alaska Department of Health & Social Services
A child was severely injured while in his father’s care. The father did not immediately seek medical help and gave conflicting explanations of how his son’s injury occurred. An Alaska superior court found probable cause to believe that the child was in need of aid, limited the father’s contact with the child and mother, and awarded the mother custody. A few months later the father was arrested outside the family home, and evidence suggested that the mother had allowed contact between him and their son in violation of military and civil no-contact orders. The superior court adjudicated the boy as a child in need of aid based on the actions of both parents. The parents separately appealed the adjudication. But after the appeals were filed, the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) informed the superior court that the child could safely be returned to his parents’ care, and the superior court closed the case. On appeal the parents argue that their appeals were mooted by the superior court’s dismissal of OCS’s case and that the Alaska Supreme Court should decline to hear the appeals and vacate the adjudication order to avoid the potential for collateral consequences. In the alternative, they argued that if this case was heard on the merits the Supreme Court should find that the superior court erred in adjudicating their son as a child in need of aid. The Court concluded it should hear the appeals on the merits, and therefore did not vacate the adjudication order. On the merits, the Supreme Court affirmed the order. View "Reed S. v. Alaska Department of Health & Social Services" on Justia Law
Native Village of Chignik Lagoon v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Soc. Svcs.
Two tribes claimed to be a child’s tribe for purposes of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA): The Native Village of Wales claimed the child was a tribal member; the Native Village of Chignik Lagoon claims that the child is “eligible for tribal membership.” After the superior court terminated the biological parents’ parental rights, Wales moved to transfer subsequent proceedings, including potential adoption, to its tribal court. Chignik Lagoon intervened in the child in need of aid (CINA) case, arguing that the child was not a member of Wales under Wales’s constitution and that transfer of further proceedings to the Wales tribal court was not authorized under ICWA. The superior court found that the child was a member of Wales and that Wales was the child’s tribe for ICWA purposes, and therefore granted the transfer of jurisdiction. Chignik Lagoon appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s determination that the child was a member of Wales and that Wales was appropriately designated as the child’s tribe for ICWA purposes. The Supreme Court also concluded that, given that ruling, Chignik Lagoon lacked standing to challenge the transfer of proceedings to the Wales tribal court. View "Native Village of Chignik Lagoon v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Soc. Svcs." on Justia Law
Angelica C. v. Jonathan C.
A woman filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of the father of her child because the child was conceived as a result of sexual abuse. After years of litigation, including a previous appeal, the superior court held a hearing on the petition and denied it. The woman appealed. "The court’s factual findings are supported by the record, and we do 'not re-weigh evidence when the record provides clear support for the trial court’s ruling.'" Accordingly, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s denial of her petition. View "Angelica C. v. Jonathan C." on Justia Law
Daum v. Daum
A couple separated after three years of marriage. They had a son who was later diagnosed with several mental disabilities. The father paid child support until the son turned 19; when the son was in his twenties the father filed for divorce. The superior court entered a divorce decree and ordered the father to pay post-majority child support, finding that the son was unable to support himself by reason of his disability. The father appealed, arguing that the superior court lacked jurisdiction and the statutory authority to order post-majority support and that the court abused its discretion by ordering him to pay the entirety of the son’s living expenses. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s exercise of jurisdiction and authority to issue the support order. However, because of an inconsistency in the support order’s application, the case was remanded to the superior court for reconsideration of whether the father’s support obligation — 100% of the son’s living expenses — represented a fair percentage. View "Daum v. Daum" on Justia Law
Husby v. Monegan
Jennifer Monegan was the birth mother of a child born in 2011, and Scout Monegan was the child’s adoptive father. Gregory and Julie Husby were the child’s maternal grandparents and lived in Oregon. Jennifer and her child lived with the Husbys for a time after the child’s birth; the Husbys provided childcare and were significantly involved in the child’s life until he was two and a half years old. However, Jennifer’s relationship with the Husbys began to deteriorate after she started dating Scout. After Jennifer and Scout married in 2013, the Husbys petitioned for visitation in Oregon, where all of the parties lived at the time. Jennifer and the Husbys came to a mediated agreement providing, among other things, that the Husbys would have visitation with the child one weekend per month for 32 hours, as well as unlimited written and telephonic contact.The Monegans moved to Alaska in March 2018. In-person visits occurred less frequently after the relocation: between March 2018 and August 2019 the Husbys visited the child seven times. The Husbys tried to maintain their relationship with the child through letters, gifts, and weekly phone calls, and claimed they were able to do so through the summer of 2019. In September 2019 the Monegans filed a complaint in the superior court to terminate the Husbys’ visitation rights, alleging it was not in the child’s best interests to continue visitation. The Husbys counterclaimed for modification of the stipulated order to allow “reasonable visitation” with the child. The Husbys then moved to enforce the stipulated visitation order. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded AS 25.20.065(a) governed the motion to modify the grandparents' visitation, and when a grandparent seeks visitation over a parent’s objection, the grandparent must show clear and convincing evidence that the parent was unfit or that denying visitation will be detrimental to the child. If the court awards visitation rights to a grandparent, and the parent later moves to modify the grandparent’s visitation rights, so long as the parents were protected by the parental preference rule in the proceedings resulting in the grandparent’s visitation rights, the "parental preference rule" does not apply in later proceedings to modify those visitation rights. Having clarified the applicable legal standards, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the superior court’s order in this case because it was error to decide the motions to modify the grandparents’ visitation rights without first holding a hearing on disputed issues of fact. View "Husby v. Monegan" on Justia Law