When biological parents move from state to state, it is particularly important for juvenile courts to make sure they have initial and continuing jurisdiction over their children.
C.H. v. Lamar County DHR, Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, October 16, 2020
Juvenile courts often are called on to decide questions about children whose biological parents are no longer within the state. Often, too, the children may reside elsewhere by the time the courts come to a decision. This can cause complex questions about the power courts of different states have with respect to the children. These questions are governed by the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). When parties obtain a final judgment in custody cases touching more than one state, they must make sure the juvenile court has made all the findings necessary under the UCCJEA if they want to uphold the judgment.
Recently, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals reversed a decision of the Lamar County juvenile court because it had made no finding required by the UCCJEA. In C.H. v. Lamar County DHR, DHR first became involved with the family in early 2016 when hospital workers notified DHR of injuries to the younger of two children, that were consistent with physical abuse. The children were placed in foster care while the mother was provided with reunification services, which she complied with until the children were returned. Their reunion was short lived as the children were removed again when a surprise inspection of the home revealed issues with cleanliness and safety. Any further services provided by DHR could not be completed as the father was incarcerated in North Carolina at the time and the mother chose not to comply with further reunification services before moving to North Carolina herself. On August 11, 2018, the children were placed with the father’s brother and sister-in-law (the paternal aunt and uncle), where they resided thereafter. The situation came to a head when DHR filed two petitions with the Lamar juvenile court to terminate the parents’ parental rights, one petition for each child. After trial, the juvenile court ruled in favor of DHR and terminated the parent’s parental rights to both children.
The parents appealed the decision to the Court of Civil Appeals which noted that when both the parents and DHR submitted their briefs to the Court, neither party “addressed the issue of whether the juvenile court had subject-matter jurisdiction over the termination-of-parental rights actions. “Unlike defects in personal jurisdiction, which can be waived, … ‘subject-matter jurisdiction may not be waived; a court’s lack of subject-matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time by any party and may even be raised by a court ex mero motu.'”” Thus, the Court addressed the issue even though the parties did not raise it.
Jurisdiction over actions involving child-custody like dependency allegations or, in this case, termination of parental rights is determined by UCCJEA. Section 30-3B-201 of the UCCJEA determines the jurisdiction of a court when entering custody decisions. It says: “a court of [Alabama] has jurisdiction to make an initial child custody determination only if: “(1) This state is the home state of the child on the date of the commencement of the proceeding, or was the home state of the child within six months before the commencement of the proceeding … A period of temporary absence of the child or any of the mentioned persons is part of the period.” In these cases, the record failed to show whether Alabama was the children’s home state when the petitions were filed and, even if it was, if the juvenile court still maintained continuing jurisdiction over the children after they moved to North Carolina. As a result, the Court of Civil Appeals reversed the judgment and remanded the case to the juvenile court. It said that it was not clear “whether the juvenile court properly exercised continuing jurisdiction over the child[ren] and, thus, jurisdiction to terminate the [parents’] parental rights, ‘the [juvenile] court must have had jurisdiction to make an initial custody determination.’” Thus, the Court decided that before a final ruling could be made, the juvenile court must first determine whether it has the proper jurisdiction to make a custody determination under the UCCJEA.
This case offers two important lessons: (1) any juvenile court making a determination about child custody and parental rights must make sure that it has proper authority over the children at each stage of its proceedings; and (2) when cases involve more than one state, parties should make sure that the juvenile court has complied with the requirements of the UCCJEA.