Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Family Law
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The mother of an autistic child filed a petition for a protective order against the child’s father, alleging that the father kicked the child during an altercation that took place at the Extreme Fun Center in Wasilla, Alaska. At the hearing on the long-term protective order, the court admitted the mother’s recording of statements the son made to her approximately 30-35 minutes after the incident. The son stated that the father kicked him in the buttocks; the only disinterested witness with personal knowledge of the incident testified that the father did not kick his son. Relying on the recording and testimony from the child’s mother and therapist, the superior court found that the father committed assault; relying on the mother’s testimony, the court found that the father committed criminal trespass and granted the mother’s petition. The court also required the father to undergo a psychological evaluation and pay the mother’s attorney’s fees. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court vacated and remanded the superior court’s assault finding, and reversed the court’s trespass finding. The Court determined the superior court made its findings by a "bare preponderance" of the evidence. It was an abuse of discretion for the superior court to admit the recording without making threshold findings as to the child's competency and the recording’s trustworthiness. The protective order was vacated, as was the order for the father to undergo a psychological evaluation. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Stephan P. v. Cecilia A." on Justia Law

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At the end of a marriage marked by allegations of domestic violence and substance abuse, a couple sought protective orders as well as a divorce and custody decision regarding their young daughter. After a series of hearings over six months the superior court granted a decree of divorce and issued its custody, visitation, and support order. The mother appealed two aspects of the court’s order: (1) the court’s findings that she did not prove allegations that her ex-husband sexually assaulted her on two occasions; and (2) the court’s restriction of her use and possession of alcohol and controlled substances while she has custody of the child. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the trial court did not clearly err by finding the mother had not proven by a preponderance of the evidence the alleged sexual assaults occurred, it affirmed that decision. The Court also concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion by restricting the mother’s use of alcohol and controlled substances, and affirmed the superior court’s custody decision. View "Jill Y. v. Casey Y." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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The parents-parties to this appeal separated when their child was not yet two years old. Following contentious divorce proceedings, the superior court awarded equally shared physical custody and joint legal custody of the child. After trial, but before the court had issued its child custody decision, the mother filed a motion to relocate with the child. The court declined to address the relocation motion in its custody decision. Following evidentiary hearings on the relocation motion, a different judge awarded the mother primary physical custody. The father appealed, arguing the court made several errors when making its custody modification decision. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the decision. View "Ott v. Runa" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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In early December 2018, Jan K. gave birth to Ada K. in Anchorage. Within a few days the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took emergency custody of Ada and filed an emergency petition to adjudicate her as a child in need of aid. OCS identified Ralph W. As Ada's father. Jan had reported that Ralph was the "biological father" and that he "had intended to be at the hospital for the birth." Jan and Ralph did not live together, but both lived in Wasilla. According to OCS, Ralph said he had known Jan for “approximately one year”; Ralph “was aware of the pregnancy and was certain that he was the father and wanted the child to be placed with him.” OCS also asserted that Ralph said he had been present at all of Jan’s prenatal appointments and they planned to marry. According to OCS, Ralph explained he had not been present at the birth because Jan had been unable to call him, and no one else had called him. OCS noted that Ralph took a paternity test that day. While the parties concurred Ada should have been placed with Ralph, OCS declined until paternity test results were received. At the time of the hearing, the results were not in. The parties nonetheless stipulated, subject to the pending paternity test results, that Ada be placed with Ralph and that “if it turns out that [Ralph] is not the father, [OCS] will have the authority to immediately remove [Ada].” The Office of Public Advocacy petitioned for the Alaska Supreme Court's review of the trial court's appointment order. Within a week, the paternity test results excluded Ralph as Ada's father, and an order disestablishing paternity was entered. Despite the issue being moot, the Supreme Court granted OPA's petition for review to clarify the appointment of counsel in this context. The primary issue for review reduced to whether a putative father’s parentage could be judicially established by “sufficient evidence” presented to the superior court — or must be established by scientific, genetic testing — to allow appointment of public agency counsel to the putative father in a CINA proceeding. The Court concluded that a judicial determination of paternity did not necessarily need underlying scientific, genetic testing in this context, and affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Office of Public Advocacy v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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An Alaskan superior court terminated a mother’s and father’s parental rights based on a finding that they caused mental injury to their child. Relevant to this finding, the child in need of aid (CINA) statutes provided that a court may find a child in need of aid due to parental conduct or conditions causing the child “mental injury”; they also provideed that a “mental injury” exists when there was “a serious injury to the child as evidenced by an observable and substantial impairment in the child’s ability to function in a developmentally appropriate manner and the existence of that impairment is supported by the opinion of a qualified expert witness.” The primary issue before the Alaska Supreme Court in this case was one of evidence rule and statutory interpretation in the context of a judge-tried CINA matter: did the statutorily required expert witness have to be offered and affirmatively accepted as a qualified expert witness by the superior court? The Supreme Court concluded the answer was “yes”; that it would review a claim of error in this regard despite a lack of objection in the superior court; and that it would conclude any such error is harmless only if - considering the parent was not necessarily on notice to make an on-record challenge to the expert’s qualifications - the Supreme Court could conclude the putative expert clearly was qualified to render the specific testimony required by statute. View "C.G. v. Alaska, Dept. Health & Social Serv." on Justia Law

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Cleveland Karren and Jayda Roman had a daughter, born March 2012 in Washington, D.C. Jayda and the daughter moved in July to Mount Vernon, Washington, to live with Jayda’s parents. The family moved to Anchorage in April 2013. Cleveland later took a job at Joint Base Lewis-McChord; he moved to Washington in April 2014, and Jayda remained in Anchorage with the daughter. In May 2015 Cleveland took a different job and moved to Washington, D.C. Jayda filed the parties’ marital dissolution petition in Anchorage in May 2015. Jayda and Cleveland testified that they both had “live[d] in Alaska six continuous months out of the past six years.” Jayda appealed the Alaska superior court’s child custody order, arguing that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) or that it abused its discretion by failing to decline UCCJEA jurisdiction on inconvenient forum grounds. She also contended the court gave disproportionate weight to the custody investigator’s trial testimony and, under the statutory custody factors, to maintaining the father-daughter relationship. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded that the superior court had UCCJEA jurisdiction because Alaska was the child’s home state when the proceeding commenced; the Court also concluded that the court properly weighed the statutory inconvenient forum factors and did not abuse its discretion when it determined that deciding custody in Alaska was most practical. And because the court had broad discretion in making a custody determination — including the weight to give a custody investigator’s testimony — the Supreme Court concluded the court did not abuse its discretion when weighing either testimony or statutory custody factors. View "Roman v. Karren" on Justia Law

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A mother appealed a superior court’s child support order that was based on imputed income, arguing that the court’s finding of her imputed gross income was based on faulty weekly hour and hourly rate determinations. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that by going well beyond the mother’s previous weekly hours and hourly rate without any evidence or findings about commensurate job opportunities and the mother’s abilities and qualifications for those opportunities, the trial court failed to follow established Alaska case law. It therefore vacated the child support order and remanded for further proceedings. View "Vogus v. Vogus" on Justia Law

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At issue in consolidated appeals before the Alaska Supreme Court were the custody proceedings involving the same child before two courts of independent sovereignty: the State of Alaska and the Native Village of Barrow (NVB). A child custody case was initiated in the Utqiagvik superior court. Thereafter, NVB, through its tribal court, took custody of the child in a tribal child in need of aid (CINA) case. In 2016 the superior court ultimately denied the mother’s state court motion to modify custody. NVB sought to intervene in the state custody case, but the superior court denied its motion. The mother appealed the superior court’s denial of her motion to modify custody; NVB appealed the order denying its motion to intervene. The Alaska Supreme Court determined that under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a superior court receiving a tribal court order to determine whether the order was issued in an ICWA-defined child custody proceeding and, if it was, was mandated to follow ICWA section 1911(d)’s full faith and credit mandate. The superior court erred in ruling that the NVB tribal court lacked jurisdiction without following the procedures underlying the process for giving full faith and credit to a tribal court order. View "Native Village of Barrow v. Williams" on Justia Law

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A 19-year-old man had a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old girl, and she became pregnant. The man pleaded guilty to attempted sexual abuse of a minor in the second degree. While the man was incarcerated the girl gave birth to their son. When the girl was 17, she was arrested and sent to a juvenile correctional facility. A dispute arose over custody of the child and the superior court ultimately entered a custody order based on the parents’ stipulation. The mother was to have primary physical custody and the father would have regular visitation. When the mother’s living situation became unstable, the father sought to modify the custody order. Those proceedings, which included an earlier appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court, resulted in two orders of relevance here: (1) an order relating to the mother's attempt to terminate the father’s parental rights because his paternity was rooted in a criminal sex act; and (2) the father’s motion to modify custody and ultimate award of sole custody with visitation for the mother and both sets of grandparents. The superior court rejected the mother’s interpretation of former AS 25.23.180(e), which described an “independent proceeding” for the termination of parental rights of sexual abusers, and dismissed her petition. Meanwhile, in granting the father custody, the trial court concluded he overcame the domestic violence presumption that would have barred his custody. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded: (1) in the termination case, the superior court erred in rejecting the mother's petition; and (2) in the custody case, the trial court erred by failing to properly integrate the father's sexual abuse of the mother into its best interests analysis for awarding custody. Both orders were reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Angelica C. v. Jonathan C." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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A mother filed a motion for clarification, arguing that Alaska no longer had exclusive, continuing jurisdiction over a child custody order under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) after she, her ex-husband, and their two children lived in South Carolina for over a year. The father objected, arguing he was still a resident of Alaska, and he intended to return to Alaska after his service in the Air Force. The superior court found that it did not have exclusive, continuing jurisdiction over its initial custody order because neither the parents nor the children presently resided in Alaska. The court also suggested that substantial evidence related to custody existed in South Carolina, and therefore it was likely the more appropriate forum. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the superior court indeed had continuing jurisdiction under the UCCJEA. Furthermore, because the parties and court did not have a full opportunity to address all of the relevant UCCJEA forum non conveniens factors, the court's orders were reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Mouritsen v. Mouritsen" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law