May 01, 2013

Best Interests Was Proper Standard in Adoption Contest

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

In re S.G., 2013 WL 1222852 (Minn.).

Trial court properly decided case based on best interests factors where there were competing adoption petitions by relatives and foster parents. Statute requiring court to first look at relatives’ petition and then foster parents’ did not require court to decide against or in favor of relative before moving on to consider foster parents’ petition. Decision that foster parent placement was in children’s best interests due to their special needs was proper.

The state became involved with the children when P.U.K. was born exposed to cocaine. She was underweight and had tremors consistent with the exposure. The next year, her sister D.F.K. was also born exposed to cocaine. Later, both were found to have developmental delays. Both sisters were removed shortly after birth and placed with the foster parents, where they remained.

The agency quickly sought termination of parental rights, noting in the petitions the mother’s long history of drug abuse, previous children that she had abandoned, and father’s history of domestic violence. The district court granted the termination petitions.

In the meantime, the grandmother had expressed interest in being a caregiver for P.U.K. and then D.F.K. after she was born. However, the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC) home study was stalled initially because the step-grandfather refused to be fingerprinted or participate in parenting classes.

The agency approached the foster parents about adopting the children and they agreed to file a petition. Before they filed a petition, the grandparents’ home study was approved by Mississippi. Both the grandparents and foster parents filed petitions to adopt within the same month. 

The court consolidated their petitions for a contested adoption hearing. The court heard testimony from the sisters’ guardian ad litem, an expert witness, and their pediatrician. The district court found it was in the children’s best interests to be adopted by the foster parents and granted their petition. 

The grandparents appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals which upheld the district court order. They then appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. 

The Minnesota Supreme Court first addressed whether the state relative consideration provision had been correctly applied. Under state statute the court must “consider placement, consistent with the child’s best interests” with relatives or a friend with a significant relationship. 

On appeal, the grandparents contended the court incorrectly applied the statute by considering the competing petitions side-by-side rather than considering their petition first, only moving on to consider the foster parents’ petition if it found placement with the grandparents was not in the children’s best interests. The foster parents argued the best interest of the child standard was the primary factor, trumping any relative preference. 

Looking to the dictionary definition of ‘consider’ in the context of the statute, the supreme court held that the trial court was required to first review a relative’s adoption petition before a foster parent’s. The language did not indicate the court had to make a final decision on a relative’s petition before moving on to a foster parents.’ 

The Minnesota Supreme Court held the trial court followed the statute in this regard. It first analyzed the best interest factors concerning the grandparents and then the foster parents. The finding that the foster parents were better suited was not unreasonable in light of the court’s concerns that the grandparents did not fully appreciate the children’s special needs. 

Contrary to the grandparents’ assertion, this did not mean the statute conferred no advantage to relatives. The Court held that, if best interests factors were equal, considering the relative’s petition first would be advantageous. 

The grandparents also claimed the court failed to consider the children’s cultural needs. The district court did find the children and grandparents were African-American and the foster parents were Caucasian. It did not explain how the foster parents would be able to keep the children’s connections to their family’s culture but it noted that they “believe that diversity is very important.” It also noted that they had two adopted children of different races and an African-American family friend living in the home. While the district court analysis was sparse, the court found that the lack of depth was not sufficient to require reversal given the applicable deferential standard.

Based on the above, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the order granting the adoption petition of the foster parents.