New ruling affects child custody cases in Kansas

Foster parents won custody of a child over maternal cousins in a Kansas Supreme Court ruling today that may have wide-ranging implications in similar cases.

In this case involving a Wichita child, the Kansas Supreme Court today held that state law limits the type of district court orders subject to appellate review. The 6-1 ruling resolves a conflict that had developed among lower courts dealing with cases brought to protect children from abuse and neglect.

The case, which was argued April 28, involved a dispute between the child’s foster parents and her mother’s cousins, who both wanted permission to adopt after parental rights were legally terminated.

A Sedgwick County District Court judge found in favor of the foster parents and the maternal cousins appealed. A divided Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision and remanded for further proceedings that would have permitted the maternal cousins to finalize an adoption.

The Supreme Court held the Court of Appeals did not have jurisdiction and dismissed the appeal. This restored the district court’s decision in favor of the foster parents.

The Supreme Court said the Legislature limited the ability to appeal under the Revised Kansas Code for Care of Children to “any order of temporary custody, adjudication, disposition, finding of unfitness or termination of parental rights.” If a district court order in a child in need of care case does not fit within these categories, the court explained, it is not appealable.

The appellate jurisdiction controversy came after different Court of Appeals panels developed conflicting interpretations over what the state law meant by the term “disposition” in the listing of appealable orders.

In the Sedgwick County case, the Court of Appeals majority broke from previous rulings and held the term included any order that placed a child in, continues a child in, or removes a child from the legal custody of an individual or agency.

But in the majority decision written by Justice Dan Biles, the Supreme Court rejected that view as overly broad and inconsistent with child in need care statutes, which create “a legislatively designated framework of sequential steps of judicial proceedings with each step occurring in a specific order leading toward permanency in the child’s placement.”

The cutoff for appellate review, the majority held, is an order terminating parental rights. After that, the court explained, district court decisions are not subject to appeal under the Revised Code. “Otherwise,” the majority continued, “it is easy to see how these cases could turn into back-and-forth campaigns of endless litigation and appeals by persons other than the child’s parents.”

Disagreeing with the court majority, Justice Lee A. Johnson said he would find the Sedgwick County order at issue to be an order of temporary custody and consider the appeal on its merits.

The court’s decision is online at http://www.kscourts.org/Cases-and-Opinions/opinions/SupCt/2014/20140711/109208.pdf.

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