Parties in child custody cases must be certain that their juvenile court makes every necessary ruling, or risk having their judgment overturned on appeal.
E.H. v. Calhoun County Department of Human Resources,
Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, October 2, 2020
In custody cases where a child is alleged to be dependent, a juvenile court must make a finding of dependency when awarding custody. Section12-15-310(b), of the Alabama Code requires that this finding be made expressly. If the juvenile court judgment does not make an explicit finding of dependency, such a finding can be implied. But an appeals court will not always assume that it has been made. Parties wishing to uphold a custody determination should ask the juvenile court to amend its judgment to make the explicit finding, or risk losing their judgment on appeal. Conversely, parties seeking to challenge a juvenile court judgment should look for this as a ground for appeal.
In a recent case, E.H. v. Calhoun County Department of Human Resources, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals reversed a juvenile court judgment that did not make the necessary explicit finding of dependency. In that case, the juvenile court had previously found the child dependent and DHR had removed the child from the mother’s home, placing the child with paternal grandparents. Later, DHR asked the court for both legal and physical custody of the child. The mother brought evidence showing she had made significant changes to her behavior and lifestyle. The juvenile court ruled in favor of DHR, but did not actually find that the child remained dependent.
On appeal, the Court of Civil Appeals reviewed the evidence in detail, and noted that the case was similar to a prior decision, H.C. v. S.L., 251 So. 3d 793, 794 (Ala. Civ. App. 2017). As in that case, there was evidence supporting a finding that the child was not dependent and the juvenile court did not make any determination about the child’s status at the time the judgment was entered. The Court of Civil Appeals thus reversed the juvenile court’s decision and remanded the case for it to properly determine whether the child was dependent at the time of final judgment.
The E.H. v. Calhoun County DHR case teaches us three important lessons: (1) when a juvenile court makes a custody ruling, it must make an express determination about the child’s dependency status at the time of the ruling; (2) parties who wish to uphold a juvenile court’s custody ruling where this step is left undone should ask the court to revise its judgment to include the required finding; (3) parties wishing to challenge a custody ruling should look for a missing dependency determination as a possible ground on which to have the ruling reversed.