In the Matter of JB, 2015 MT 342 (Dec. 15, 2015) (McKinnon, J.) (5-0, aff’d & rev’d)
Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred in dismissing NL, and (2) whether the district court erred in denying NL’s request to appear at JB’s proceeding pursuant to § 41-3-422(9)(a), MCA.
Short Answer: (1) No, and (2) yes.
Affirmed and reversed
Facts: NL and MH lived together for about seven years and have two biological children together, ages 6 and 8. MH is also the biological mother of JB, age 10. JB has no relationship with his biological father, who has not appeared in this case. NL acted as JB’s father and raised him from eight months old until June 2012, when JB and the other two children were removed from their home by DPHHS. MH left the family and all three children with NL. In June 2012, NL contacted DPHHS to report his concerns that MH was going to try to take JB and JB was frightened to go with her. Based upon a report that NL was suicidal, the Department removed all three children two days later. The legal proceedings included all three children.
While in protective custody, JB was placed in multiple foster homes and, for a short period, with NL. The Department removed JB from NL’s care upon learning they are not biologically related and that NL has a criminal history that prevented the placement based upon DPHHS policy. JB currently lives in a therapeutic group home.
In September 2012, a neuropsychologist conducted an assessment and noted that JB identifies NL as his dad and concluded it would be detrimental to JB to have that relationship severed.
Eventually, JB’s half-siblings were returned to NL’s care, at which point MH moved to dismiss NL from the legal proceedings regarding JB. NL objected, contending he is like a father to JB, and that “at a minimum” he is a “person interested” under § 41-3-422(9)(a), MCA, and therefore has a right to notice and appear.
Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court agreed with MH and dismissed NL as a party. It further concluded that NL did not satisfy the definition of an “interested person” under the statute and had no right to notice or appear. NL appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms in part and reverses in part.
Reasoning: (1) The best interests of the child are paramount in any proceeding under Title 41. When DPHHS files a petition, it is captioned with the child’s identity only. Under the statutes, the allowable parties to abuse and neglect proceedings are DPHHS, which is the only agency that may initiate the proceeding; parents (including adoptive or stepparents), guardians or persons having legal custody; and any foster parent, pre-adoptive parent, or relative caring for the child. NL does not fall into an of these categories, and was therefore not properly a party.
(2) The Court interprets the statutory phrase “any person interested in any cause under this chapter” in its plain meaning, and concludes NL is a person interested in JB’s cause and has a right to appear at hearings pertaining to JB. NL does not have the right to notice or be heard, however, because he is not JB’s foster parent, pre-adoptive parent, or relative. The district court has discretion to receive comments, input or participation fro an interested person; however, the right to appear as an interested person does not override the confidentiality provisions of Title 41.